January 2, 2013

Translating the medicine

Logansport Memorial Hospital employs two full-time Spanish-speaking interpreters

by Caitlin Huston

— Mary Carmen Santella-Mercurio follows patients from consults to surgeries to the recovery room, but she’s not a doctor.

As an interpretor at Logansport Memorial Hospital, Santella-Mercurio helps Spanish-speaking patients understand all aspects of their hospital visits, which can include everything from billing to siting with the patient during a live surgery. For patients who speak a language outside of Spanish, the hospital uses a phone interpretation system.

Growing up in Argentina, Santella-Mercurio was expected to follow the family profession and become a doctor. But she chose instead to pursue teaching and translation and eventually ended up at Indiana Beef Products. Now, at the hospital, Santella-Mercurcio said she feels like she’s come full-circle.

“It’s a way of practicing medicine without the whole responsibility,” Santella-Mercurio said.

Santella-Mercurio and the other translators — Guadalupe Cruz, a full-time interpreter, and Ceshli Castro-Diaz, who fills in when needed — had to take courses in subjects like anatomy and medical terminology to become certified as medical interpreters.

Since June 2001, Santella-Mercurio has been responsible for translating everything the health care providers say for the patients. Because Santella-Mercurio sees some patients through multiple hospital visits, she says they often form a bond.

“You sort of build a relationship,” Santella-Mercurio said.

Santella-Mercurio said she feels she can help calm patients by helping them understand what’s happening, especially when they don’t have any other family members around during child births.

“They really calm down,” Santella-Mercurio said.

When a patient speaks a language other than Spanish or English, Sue Smith, patient access manager, said the hospital uses a telephone system.

“We can handle all languages,” Smith said.

All of the language services are free for patients, Smith said.

Part of Santella-Mercurio’s job is explaining the medical procedure to the family members who visit. She also helps patients as they go through financial counseling.

“That’s a big thing now,” Santella-Mercurio said.

With work in all of the hospital departments, Santella-Mercurio said it’s not a sit down job.

“We rarely have a moment where we’re not going from one place to another,” Santella-Mercurio said.

Santella-Mercurio and Cruz work about 40 hours a week for five days a week and then trade off being on call after hours and on weekends.

Hospital CEO Dave Ameen said they will try to organize schedules to make sure there are translators available when Spanish-speaking clients are coming in.

However, even with the full-time translators, Ameen said they still have to work hard to keep up with need.

“The challenge is you’ve never got enough,” Ameen said.

Ameen said that bringing understanding to the patient is an important part of medical care.

“You can provide better care when you can communicate to the patient,” Ameen said.

By the side of the patients, Santella-Mercurio said she sees patients go through good and bad outcomes. But asked about the most rewarding part of her job, Santella-Mercurio said her favorite part of the job is “when you see a patient that is happy.”

Caitlin Huston is a staff reporter of the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at 574-732-5148 or