I’ve always loved languages. As an adolescent, I’d read my mom’s adultish books aloud in different accents, trying (in my weird adolescent way) to channel another side of me. I didn’t know much about the real international world around me, and back then cable was still kind of starting out, so typically I did my reading aloud with hybrids of the english accent, copying people I’d heard in movies and in music. Then, as a 7th grader, I took a foreign language elective. French and Spanish were the options. I chose French, and that began a 9 year romantic preoccupation with everything french: the language, the culture, the history, the architecture, the landscape, the food, the wine….the people. The severe crush that I had on a country smaller than the size of Texas lead me towards great grades in the study of the language, a better understanding of other romantic languages and even a few career aspirations. I’d work as an interpreter, a journalist, a teacher, something, whatever I had to do when I grew up, it would have something to do with unleashing the francophile brewing within. Well, ultimately those dreams never materialized. I can still speak a little (and with a pretty convincing accent) and the remnants of my preoccupation still fill well earned places in my trunks, among my scraps of memories and amidst many books on my bookshelves. I can watch French movies without totally relying on the subtitles, and sometimes, I can even relate certain other foreign words to theFrench translation and be able to figure a few things out. But that’s about it. It’s not really doing anything for me in the here and now….it’s not spurring me forward in any way….it hasn’t taught me anything new for a very long time. Wonder what might have been had I chosen the, ‘other’ elective….
Two to three families out of the 30 or so that I see in an average 12 hour shift are non English speaking. And, when I say ‘non English’ speaking, I mean they speak Spanish and literally can NOT communicate in English. They visit the emergency roms just like any other worried set of parents. From non-urgent, to semi-urgent to emergent to critical, they bring their children in with the same worried expression of any parent with a sick child. Only their worried expressions also come with a pained, furrowed and often timid looking face of a person who knows that language will be an issue. “How will I communicate, and make them understand what’s going on with my little boy?”. Thankfully, my hospital has options in place that make their visit a little easier: a language line with a 24 hour interpreter that can be used over the phone and on site Spanish interpreters available M-F 8-530p. But what about the rooms with broken phones? And what about 4am on a Sunday morning?
I recently experienced a double whammy of those what-ifs. It was a weekday evening much past 5:30 pm, and in a room with a broken phone. Some young hispanic parents brought their baby in for a persistent high fever, and I was their nurse. Thankfully, the doc spoke some spanish, but she obviously couldn’t stay with me and I don’t speak a WORD of Spanish. This baby required lots of procedures and lots of samples to be sent to the lab which meant lots of interaction and lots of time spent in the room. Usually, I’d explain and talk with the parents about what to expect, the doctor’s plan, and how they could help their child. Obviously not the case with this situation….
The child had a high pitched scream, and the parent’s scared, blank expressions when met with my most animated and well thought out gestures didn’t ignite sympathy, or a desire in me to help them more. It stirred up startling disdain and resentment. Their stay was long and as the hours dripped away, any empathy that was left in my heart was being drained away. I dreaded having to go in to the room. I dreaded the silence that I walked into each and every time they required being checked on. I dreaded the piercing and spine tingling cry of this sick baby. I dreaded trying to orchestrate their positioning around the bed when the child needed something done because I just couldn’t communicate with them. Finally they left. The doctor discharged them and gave them their instructions. I was thankful for that and as they walked out the door, I could feel them looking my way. I didn’t even look up. I couldn’t even bring myself to fake a gesture that would convey that I cared about them or what happened to their child. They were leaving, and I was glad. They were leaving and I resented them even being there. I was ashamed for the feelings that I was feeling for them–definitely not my finest hour as a nurse–but I didn’t do much to talk myself out of what I was feeling.
In the days that followed, that little family plagued me as I tried to sleep at night, and bothered me in my downtime minutes throughout the day. I was bothered not just by them, but all families who I couldn’t communicate with. My annoyance was startling and I found myself whispering to myself “Why, why, why would you come to a country and not learn the language?”. “Why why why won’t these people learn English?” Yeah. I know. I was sounding like a possessed republican. Pretty scary. So one day, as I was pretending to be nice, but still harboring the “Why why why” resentment, I heard myself respond “Why why why won’t YOU learn Spanish?” And a familiar snippet of a bible verse came to mind “To whom much is given, much is expected”.
I’m ashamed of those new and very brief feelings of resentment for that family. And, I’m ashamed and surprised at how quickly they came about. At the same time, I’m grateful for the experience. It gave me a little peek into the evolution of racist notions that seemed to have stemmed from frustration and helplessness, not from a purely wicked soul. It’s also given me the opportunity to resolve that racism and prejudice can be battled with action, and only grows from a stew of apathy.
So, just a few steps into this new year, I’ve discovered my 2nd resolution for 2008….develop a new crush….on a new language.