Communication during the COVID-19 crisis has been challenging to say the least. For families separated from their loved ones and relying on the information they receive via phone calls, a language barrier can only make them feel that much more helpless and lost. As a Spanish-speaking palliative care physician, I came to appreciate the ability to bridge that language gap so much more during the pandemic. There have been a countless number of times when frantic families called in trying to find out what was happening to their loved ones but couldn’t converse well in English — it is frustrating and challenging for the families and for the medical team.
There is one case that really stood out, when I was asked to assist a Spanish-speaking woman who was in the admitting department trying to locate her husband. In the commotion of having him rushed from their home in respiratory distress via EMS [emergency medical services], she was unaware of which hospital the ambulance had taken him to. She had spent the day traveling from hospital to hospital, hoping to find him.
At the time, our only unidentified patient was under ICU [intensive care unit] care in prone position and intubated, which made it difficult to identify him by photograph alone. The wife was able to identify him by the belongings and clothes I had obtained from the security office. His identified name in the hospital was completely different and his age was off by 20 years.
She expressed her relief and gratitude not only that day, but throughout his prolonged hospital course, for helping make the communication easier for her. Building that rapport, albeit in a less than ideal way, became crucial when I ultimately had to notify her that he had succumbed and died from COVID-19. The ability to converse and comfort her in her native language, I believe, made a significant impact in her already complicated grief. This was a 36-year-old man with no previous medical issues. The last time she saw him was that fateful day he was taken by EMS.