Howard University > Howard University Health Sciences in Haiti 2012

Haitian and Haitian-American Translators Key to Medical Mission


Dr. Yihenew Negatu, a medical resident at Howard University Hospital, relied heavily on his translator during his four days seeing patients in a room at a local school that was converted for Internal Medicine.
View more photos >>

FORT LIBERTÉ, Haiti (June 28) – One thing is certain.  The week-long medical mission here by Howard University physicians, medical students and the other U.S. physicians would be impossible without the Haitian and Haitian-American translators.

“They are probably the single most important thing on this trip,” said Dr. Shelley-Ann Hope, vice chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology for the Howard University College of Medicine and Howard University Hospital.  “If we can’t communicate with the patients and they can’t communicate with us, we can’t do our job.”

Ashleigh Bouchelion, a third-year College of Medicine student who spent her first few days working with the makeshift Pediatrics Unit, agreed.

“They are imperative,” Bouchelion, 24, said.  “There’s no way to communicate without them.

The translators were arranged by the National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians and the Haitian American Alliance.  Both organizations are the engines that are driving the medical mission with the help of Howard and other physicians and groups.

Some Howard faculty, like Dr. Marie Fidelia-Lambert, Marjorie Gondre-Lewis, Ph.D., and some Howard University Hospital residents and College of Medicine students, including Dr. Rachel Jeanty, Dr. Nadine Vidor, Jean-Edeson Belcourt, Joanne Lataillade, Ashley Pinette and Jean Guerrier were born in Haiti or have Haitian parents and speak Haitian Creole.  They can talk directly with patients without assistance.

But for the rest, translators are a must.  Fourth-year medical student Cristina Burton, 27, said the process is not without some effort.

Certain words, particularly medical terms, were difficult at times for the translators to grasp, she said.  Hers had difficulty with “inhaler,” “warm compress” and “surgery.”

“I found myself having to rephrase it and ask it in different ways,” Burton said.

The process can be tedious.  On Wednesday, medical student Aminatu Lawal sat in a hot, cramped office questioning a 22-year-old patient as Gondre-Lewis translated.

“When did she first notice the rash?” Lawal asked

Gondre-Lewis relayed the question to the patient.

“Depi kilè ou gin gratèl sa?”

“Does the rash hurt?” Lawal asked.

“Eske li fè ou mal?”

Is the rash permanent or does it come and go?

“Eske ou genyen li tout tan ou bien li vini li ale?”

In an adjacent room, Howard medical student Brittany Brand was going through a similar process with a 27-year-old patient complaining of a vaginal infection.

“How long has it been going on?” Bland asked.

Patrick Warcisse, 22, a volunteer Haitian-American from New York who is applying to Howard’s medical school this year, is her translator.

“Depi konbyen tan li la?” he asked the patient.

Four or five days, the patient responded.

“Is she having a discharge?” Bland asked.

“Eske vajin ou koule?”

Yes, a yellow liquid, the patient said.

“Has this happened before?”

“Eske ou te konn konsa deja?”

Yes, the patient said.

“What did she do to deal with it then?”

“Ki remèd ki te fè-l pase?”

The doctor gave me some pills.”

While the process can drag out treatment, physicians and other medical staff are incredibly grateful to have the services from the team, made up mostly of Haitian natives recruited from local schools.

“Oh my God, I couldn’t do this without mine,” said Karen Vogl, a nurse and nursing instructor from the University of Colorado.

The University of Colorado supplied six nurses to help the project.  Vogel was doing initial intake Thursday for the Internal Medicine unit, made up today of two College of Medicine students, a medical resident from Howard University Hospital and headed by Dr. Shelly McDonald-Pinkett, interim chair of Howard’s Department of Medicine and organizer of Howard’s portion of the trip.

“I brought mine a power bar and gave him a few dollars,” Vogl said.  “We’re not supposed to tip, but he’s just invaluable.”

© Howard University, all rights reserved.
2400 Sixth Street,
NW, Washington, DC 20059
Phone: 202-806-6100 -
Webmaster / Contacts - WWW Disclaimer
Stories and Photograhs by Ron Harris, Howard University