Riverhead woman breaks down language barriers

02/12/2012 9:00 AM |
Jessica Ruiz

GIANNA VOLPE PHOTO | Jessica Ruiz with her grandparents Gladys Cruz and José Carrasquillo at Peconic Bay Medical Center, where Ms. Ruiz is a social worker assistant and certified medical interpreter.

Jessica Ruiz is just 27 years old but she’s already made history as the first woman in New York State to become a national board-certified medical interpreter, a title only four other New Yorkers have earned.

Ms. Ruiz, a Peconic Bay Medical Center employee, was raised by her Spanish-speaking grandparents, Gladys Cruz and Jose Carrasquillo, and moved with them from Puerto Rico to Riverhead at age 7. Even at that tender age she served as an interpreter, a task she said she’s come to enjoy as an adult. As a youngster, the responsibility proved a bit too much to handle.

“Basically everywhere we went, doctor’s offices or offices where they would get help, I would have to be the one interpreting,” she said. “It wasn’t something I liked during those years.”

The responsibility grew heavier when at 16 she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that attacks the skin, she said. The condition left her resembling a burn patient. After a visit to PBMC’s emergency room, she was transferred to Stony Brook University Medical Center, where she spent the next two and a half years as an inpatient.

“I graduated high school from my hospital bed,” she said.

During those years, Ms. Ruiz learned the importance of reliable interpretation and the hardship of not having that service available. She said her grandparents went through hard times with their hospital interpreter, “especially since doctors sometimes don’t want to be open with a patient. I had to be strong and interpret for my grandparents during my illness.”

Ms. Ruiz said becoming a medical interpreter afforded her the opportunity to give something back to the medical community that cared for her during her long hospital stay.

Manager of medical center communications Mary Thomas said the center has a Spanish access line of interpreters that is used, but Ms. Ruiz is brought in for more serious matters. Ninety percent of Ms. Ruiz’s interpretation is done in the emergency room, Ms. Thomas said. On the nursing force, she is called in if a patient requests face-to-face interpretation.

Most of the time, Ms. Ruiz said she deals with patient consent in emergencies and life or death matters.

“If they need to do a procedure right away or if a family member has passed away and the family is there, I would be called,” she said.

“It’s very emotional, but as an interpreter you need to hold in your emotions to relay messages between the doctor and the patient or the patient’s family,” she said, adding that in life or death situations, like an expectant mother who needs a cesarean section but doesn’t understand what the procedure is, it becomes a team effort between herself, the patient, a member of the clergy and a social worker. “Some Spanish cultures don’t believe in C-sections and in those cases the procedure is broken down. We explain to them that it’s a life or death situation for the infant and we take it from there,” she said.

She said she has 10 minutes to respond to emergency cases and 20 minutes for non-emergency situations. In life or death matters over the weekend, Jessica can be contacted by the social work department for interpretation purposes.

Ms. Ruiz is also the medical center’s language coordinator.

“I oversee all the provisions of the program. I make sure everything is working up to date and the staff knows the importance of language services,” she said. Her job is not only crucial for non-English speaking patients to receive the best possible care and avoid misdiagnoses, it’s required by state law.

She gained the approval of the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters after six months of testing.

“I took the written exam and passed that,” she said. “After that you take the verbal exam, which is more challenging.” The challenge is proving proficiency in multiple dialects. Ms. Ruiz is fluent in a number of Spanish dialects, including Mexican, Guatemalan and Colombian, which she credits to growing up in her diverse hometown of Riverhead.

“I tell my Colombian friends, ‘When I’m with you, I’ll speak like a Colombian,” she said, “but if I’m with a Mexican, I’m going to speak like a Mexican.’ ”

She said Riverhead’s multicultural population definitely helped her get through the certification exam’s challenging multi-dialect section.

“I was explaining to a colleague that there are five ways to say ‘pork’ in Spanish,” she said. “In different countries they will call it by different names.”

Ms. Ruiz’s achievement makes her an invaluable resource for PBMC, said president and CEO Andrew Mitchell.

“We are very proud of Jessica’s accomplishment and we are glad that she is part of the Peconic Bay Medical Center team,” he said.

gvolpe@timesreview.com