Interpreter Judit Marin: A voice that makes a difference

Judit Marin will tell you she is “just a voice,” called upon to help Bay Area Spanish speakers communicate fully with doctors who speak English – not to mention the complex language of medicine.

But the 45-year-old Barcelona native and Oakland resident also represents the advantages of face-to-face medical interpreting at a time when California needs those skills most.

She doesn’t use an iPad, Skype or telephone. She shows up to appointments with just a pen and notebook. She interprets verbatim. She instructs doctor and patient to pause after two or three sentences and tells them to look at each other, not her, during the conversation. 

After Marin introduces herself as a medical interpreter to a patient, she usually leaves several seats between them in the waiting room. 

“I want to avoid those things where the patient says, ‘Oh I told you in the waiting room, tell him what I said,’” said Marin. “You don’t want that. You want them to actually tell their story with their own words because that’s critical to the doctor to have a good history, to reach the right diagnosis.”

Marin is one of a relative handful of language professionals assisting patients as health reform expands coverage to 1.7 million limited-English speakers statewide. Marin holds her certification for administrative hearings that involve medical exams, typically workers' compensation claims. She is also a certified translator with the American Translators Association.

She says much has changed since she started this work 14 years ago.

“Gone are the times of children interpreting for parents, the janitor interpreting, just anybody passing by,” she said. “I mean, they’re bilingual, but they’re not interpreters.”

While Marin is careful to distinguish herself from a social worker or patient advocate, she can’t hide her passion for this work.

“It’s like doing volunteer work, but getting paid for it,” she said. “It’s a critical service.”

And unpredictable because the fast-talking Marin rarely knows what she will encounter before she enters the waiting room.

“You allow people to communicate from the trivial thing: ‘I have a wart and I want to remove it’ to ‘I have cancer, I’m scared, what’s going to happen to me?’ to ‘I can’t have any children, I want fertility treatment’,” she said. “And then you get into people’s lives but you don’t. You’re here, then it’s over and you go home. You just hope that you allowed the patient to have access to something that’s so critical, which is access to health care.”

She does that, sometimes in ways she cannot forget. Once, she had to interpret for a mother whose eight-year-old son was gravely ill, lying on the operating table.

“The mother says, ‘is my kid gonna die?’ and I had to interpret that,” she said. “I never had to interpret that before . . . the doctor says ‘he could die, but we’re going to do everything we can.’ And then, that was it. We went into a room and we waited.”

Marin left the hospital in Oakland that night not knowing what happened.

“I live near Children’s Hospital and when I exit the freeway, I always think, I wonder what happened to that child,” she said. “I’ll never know. I shouldn’t know. I just have to do my job.”

In her profession, details are critical. She has had to memorize medical terms in both Spanish and English.

“I’ve had appointments where I've had to say ‘you need a bone marrow transplant,’” she said. “If you don’t know how to say ‘bone marrow transplant’ in Spanish, what are you going to say? Someone who is not trained will say ‘oh you need a transplant.’ That’s not the same as saying ‘you need a bone marrow transplant.’”

After one recent appointment at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland, the doctor summoned Marin back to the reception area. A patient at the window apparently showed up on the wrong day, but the receptionist didn’t know how to tell her. Marin quickly determined that it was the right day, but the wrong place. The woman had a mammogram appointment in a separate building.

Marin surveyed the campus map with the woman, then walked with her down the hallway, took the elevator with her to the street level, walked her to the street and pointed her toward the correct building.

“That’s patient advocacy,” Marin said.

—Senior writer John M. Gonzales contributed to this report.

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Lauren M. Whaley

Freelance journalist Lauren M. Whaley is a photographer, radio producer and print reporter specializing in topics related to mental illness, reproductive health care and health disparities. She is also a childbirth photographer.This year, She is working on a series about how low-income parents access care for perinatal mental illnesses. The project is funded in part by the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism.She was a 2016-17 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology.Her work has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists, the Scripps Howard Foundation and the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) STEM story project. She has contributed radio, video, photography and written stories to KQED Public Radio, Southern California Public Radio, the San Jose Mercury News, the New York Times and other media outlets. For six years, she worked as the Center for Health Reporting's multimedia journalist. She is a past president of the national organizationJournalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) and spent her early 20s leading canoe expeditions for young women, including a solo-led 45-trip in the Canadian Arctic. She is based in Los Angeles.

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