A visit to the emergency room or doctor’s office can be inherently stressful in itself. But for non-English speakers, the stress is only multiplied by an inability to communicate effectively with healthcare providers. The stress of language barriers can even deter non-English speakers altogether from accessing health care, according to results from a study released in July 2021 by researchers from Harvard University (Mass.) and Hunter College (N.Y.). 

The study showed that Spanish speakers in America receive one-third less care than other residents. In a city where 11% of the metro area population is Hispanic, Emory University club Volunteer Medical Interpretation Services (VMIS) is working to reduce these health care disparities by volunteering their time in clinics across the city to provide medical interpretation services in Spanish and Portuguese. The clinics the club attends, such as Good Samaritan Health Center, serve Atlanta’s low-income and Latinx populations.

Sharay Castanon Franco (left) and Jamie Villalobos (right), both members of exec, promoting the club at the Student Activities Fair. (Jamie Villalobos)

VMIS Director of Finance Laura Paule (22C) said that these services alleviate some of the stress non-English speakers feel when visiting the doctor.

“I go into the room, and when the patient sees me, the person who’s going to be there interpreting, there’s this look of relief in their face,” Paule said. “There’s such a huge Hispanic community [in Atlanta] that are struggling with the communication barrier; that can lead to a lot of miscommunication, even for diagnoses.”

The ability to physically work in clinics and see the impact their volunteering can have on patients is a new experience for many members, as all interpretation up until recently has been conducted over the phone since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Even during this time of virtual volunteering, Paule said that it was rewarding. 

“The way the patient communicated with me… I could tell they were glad there was somebody there to help,” Paule said. 

Paule first joined VMIS in 2019 after she saw her Spanish-speaking parents struggling to communicate with doctors and hospital staff when the family first moved to America. 

Paule sits on the executive board with six other women: Sharay Castanon Franco (23C), Solanch Dupeyron (23C), Rebecca Hirata (22B), Camelia Carvajal (22C), Jamie Villalobos (23C) and Sofia Sarmiento (23C). Sarmiento, the VMIS director of operations, said that they did not purposefully appoint all women, but that this factor has proven to be extremely successful in creating an empowering space.

“It’s very special because a lot of times in STEM clubs and communities, there’s not a lot of space for women,” Sarmiento said, the club’s Director of Operations. 

In the next year, Sarmiento will serve as the club’s president. She said that she hopes to expand the club by recruiting new members and increasing the amount of clinics the club serves. 

“In our space, in our exec meetings, we always listen to each other,” Sarmiento said. ‘Everything is democratic … A lot of STEM spaces aren’t always like that.” 

All-girl class of 2021. (Jamie Villalobos)

According to a study from the American Association of University Women, women make up only 21% of health executives and board members, even though nearly 80% of health care workers are women. The all-women executive board defies these statistics, something new VMIS member Isabela Meza Galarraga (25C) said she finds “really empowering.”

“It makes me want to be an exec member as well,” Meza Galarraga said. “Just talking to them, they inspire me to also be in a leadership role.”

All new members must go through a 40-hour training course through ALTA Language Services to learn how to interpret in medical settings before beginning their volunteering. Here, they are taught about things such as medical terminology and the interpreter code of ethics. When members consider the impact they can make on people’s lives, this time commitment is well worth it, according to Sarmiento.

“Everyone here has some sort of connection to the Spanish language, or Hispanic roots,” Sarmiento said. “Our intention is to give back to a community that has given so much to us [by] helping people who would have no other way of communicating with their doctors.”