A director from Venezuela. A past College of Charleston professor. A former hospital volunteer.

Their backgrounds are about as varied as Charleston’s shrimp and grits variations, but these folks – along with 13 others – share one very important trait: they help save lives.

Meet the members of the Medical University of South Carolina’s interpreter services team. They spend their days visiting clinics, dropping by birthing rooms and racing to the ER. Never mind the fact that they have little-to-no medical or social work training. They’re still the lifeline for Charleston County’s 11,000 plus Spanish speaking residents. In fact, they’re the area’s only group to provide in-person medical translation.

After spending a recent Monday morning with these caring souls, we’ll be the first to tell you their job’s not an easy one. Like many of the hospitals’ physician teams, the Interpreter Services office is always open, through daybreaks, weekends and holidays.

Together, the team attends an average of 2,430 doctors appointments every month. They pray with terminal patients, encourage mothers during labor and speak with mentally ill individuals. They’ve translated more than 5,000 medical documents, and have gotten to know many of the hospital’s regulars.

And that’s not even including the department’s two sign language video machines (the state’s first for deaf patients) or its phone system equipped to translate another 27 — yes, 27 — languages.

To an outsider, the pace is a bit dizzying. Or it would be, if it weren’t for the effortless pace at which the interpreters move. In fact, these guys are probably some of the only staffers who can expertly maneuver MUSC’s confusing maze of hallways and buildings.

And yet, the six on-call staffers we met seemed nothing but happy to be at work. A bit tired, no doubt, but conspiciously content.
One tells the story of a little boy’s mother, and the satisfaction it gave him to answer her worried questions during her son’s chemotherapy. Another talks of heartbreaking racial crimes and the relief that comes when they translate the words “she’ll be o.k.”

Without interpreters, these non-English speaking patients might have no idea what’s happening to them. Or worse, their doctors could have a difficult time diagnosing dangerous symptoms.

Maybe that’s why they’re all so well-known throughout the medical university. On his way back from an epidural appointment, Sam Cogdell — a long-time presence — is stopped by a young man who recognizes him.

“Hello amigo,” the man says, a huge grin on his face as he spots Sam. He asks for directions to another area of the hospital, then turns to walk away.

He takes two steps, stops and turns around. “Gracias,” he says. Another three steps, another “gracias.” A final “muchas gracias,” and he’s on his way.

Sam turns and continues down the hall, over a walkway, down an elevator, through a passage and finally back to his office. In the 25 minutes he was gone, another interpreter’s disappeared, his abandoned breakfast a sign he left quickly to help another patient.

Sam sits at his computer to get in a little work before the next call comes and he’s off to help another patient. Maybe even help save a life.

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