When Death and Culture Collide

Some of the most humbling experiences I have had as an interpreter have been when I have been entrusted with the communication between a doctor and the family of a loved one on life support. I have been involved in enough of these conversations to know to start collecting clues to the cultural bumps we are sure to encounter.

I’ve been called in as a Spanish interpreter but I hear another language being spoken over the phone. Mam I am told. Mayan language. They are from Huehuetenango. Remote western Guatemala. I’ve interpreted from people from Huehue and I imagine, given the situation, that we’ll have some difficult cultural communication.

The family and friends are there including the patient’s wife and a cousin. The wife is young as is the patient. He is just 24. They have three young children. A machine breathes for him, giving the illusion of life. There is no good explanation as to why this has happened. The surgeon is coming soon to explain the best he can.

He arrives and the loved ones listen to his words. The words he speaks that come out of my mouth. We opened him up, removed the skull bone, found the clot. But there was more than one clot. Two more in the branches of the blood vessels. If there had been just one and he had gotten to us in time, then maybe. He is being kept alive by the machines. He won’t recover. He will need to be disconnected.

I can see the questions forming as the words they hear don’t match with what they see and what they know. But his chest is moving. His heart is working. If we disconnect him, we will be killing him. Aren’t there any medicines you can give him?

I can see the surgeon become frustrated. It is now that I wish I was a better cultural broker. I am in a room with a man with perhaps the most education one can attain and who is deeply invested in Western medicine. And, on the other side, the humble Maya whom I assume have never seen such technology and are hopeful it can save a life. I don’t know if I had ever been in the presence of such a cultural gap and I felt unprepared.

The chasm seemed overwhelming. Could it be that the loved ones had never been in a hospital before? If they had been in a hospital I knew from experience that their hospitals looked nothing like this. Could it be that they didn’t understand the brain’s role in controlling the body? This all seemed too much for one conversation.

This was the first and last time I interpreted for the loved ones and the providers. I assume the issue was remedied and the patient was disconnected from life support. Maybe one side understood the other, even just a little bit. I’m interested in hearing from you. How would you have handled this? Do you think a better outcome for the provider/family conversation could have been achieved and how? Email us at AccessLangSolutions@gmail.com with your responses and insight—we’d love to hear from you.

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