The day I interpreted inside the operating theatre
It’s 4 am. My alarm goes off. I get up. I get ready. I leave the house. I travel for about an hour. It’s pitch-black outside. I arrive at the venue of my interpreting assignment.
I meet my contact at the reception. They sign me in. I am sitting in the waiting room waiting for the patient I’ll be interpreting for to arrive. It’s a pre-op assessment and I’ve done this before. I have my glossary. I have my badge. I’ve done my prep. We’re good. I should be done in about a couple of hours max.
The patient arrives. We walk into the consultation room where the patient is asked a few routine questions and fills in a form with my help. I am interpreting between the healthcare professionals and the patient.
The doctors arrive with a bed and the patient is now on it and is being wheeled off to a room. I am following. The nurse says we’ll be done with the pre-op assessment within the hour. They run some tests during which I continue to interpret.
“OK. We are all done here. Scrub in”.
I have the most puzzled look on my face. I remain silent for a few seconds.
“We have just administered the anaesthetic. Follow me. You will scrub in with us”.
The blood is rushing to my head. What’s happening? I was booked for a pre-op assessment, not to interpret during an operation. This is happening very fast. I am in the changing room and I am in full scrubs. I am freezing.
I take a long breath and have a quick chat with myself to understand where I'm at. The fact is that a person is under anaesthetic. An operation is just about to take place and I have no clue about what’s going to happen inside that operating theatre. Can I do this? Do I have to do this? What do I need in order to feel confident and comfortable? This is happening very fast.
I call the agency. They don’t pick up. Well, it’s 6 am. I leave them a message explaining.
I turn around to a member of staff. “I’m the Greek interpreter. I am just about to go inside and interpret during the operation. I need to speak to the surgeon now, before I go in.” They go in. The surgeon comes out.
“The patient is undergoing surgery under local anaesthesia. They have to be awake and interacting. This will help us understand how responsive the patient is and if something is going wrong. We will be asking a few simple questions and we need the answers translated back to the team.”
No pressure. We scrub in together. We go in.
I’m wearing gloves, a cap, and a mask. They took my notepad away. I have no pen. I can neither see the surgeon nor hear them. It’s actually 2 or 3 surgeons. They are communicating using their eyes. What am I supposed to do? I lift my mask. “I can neither hear you nor see you. You have to speak loud and clear, please”.
I am interpreting behind a set of shelves. Why on earth did they put me here? I can’t see anything. Well, thank god! But I can’t see their mouths! Gosh, I am freezing.
And we are done. I’ve been standing for an hour. An hour? Wait what?
I am told to wait until the patient gains full consciousness. I’m waiting. I try the agency again. It’s now 7.30. They pick up. They are in shock. They extend the job, they accept my day rate and a taxi to get me home. I am sent a new timesheet within seconds.
It’s time for the post-op assessment. Everything is fine.
The patient’s family arrive. They want to give me a ride home. They want to give me food. I’m so hungry, but I really cannot take it. They ask for my business card. I decline politely and I explain why I cannot give it.
I’m in a taxi. I’m sitting on the sofa. Two hours later, I’m still sitting on the sofa.
Nothing could have prepared me mentally for today. But I didn’t panic. I didn’t freak out, at least on the outside, I guess. I was professional. I did my job. The patient is fine. I’m fine. Am I?
Maybe I should just order pizza and watch a stupid movie. I need to switch off or I’ll go crazy.
Yes, let’s do that. Tomorrow, I’ll think about today.
This could have been a chapter from a book, but it’s not. It’s a real story during which I’ve learnt I can find myself in a stressful situation, face it and be OK.
I’ve learnt anything can happen during an interpreting job. Sadly, I’ve also learnt that agencies, public services and the general public know nothing about our job and how to work with us.
We, interpreters, are not machines. We are human. We have feelings, emotions. We are not surgeons, lawyers, judges, psychologists or police officers. We are not trained for that kind of mental stress. We can be though.
It can easily be fixed. Someone, somewhere along the supply chain didn’t think, or maybe didn’t know, this was going to involve interpreting inside the operating theatre or that it was going to be a full day job. Or maybe worse, they didn't think it was important to mention it!
Brief interpreters as much as possible. Educate clients and ask for as much information upfront as possible. Train clients and staff to work with interpreters. Give interpreters the full picture. I was able to cope. Someone else might not.
Mental health aside, there are practicalities here too. I didn’t have the right clothes on. I didn’t pack my lunch with me. I was cold and hungry.
It has taken me 8 years to talk about this. I think it was the shock or perhaps a wrong interpretation of what confidentiality is and isn't. This was one of my very first jobs as an interpreter. I was 6 months in the profession. And if it sounds horrifying, it’s because it was!
Did it stop me? No. The funniest part of this story is that I did the same job, same surgery, same surgeons, same process, at least another 5 times after the baptism of fire.
Vasiliki is a translator, interpreter, transcreator, blogger, consultant and director of Greek to Me Translations Ltd. She works with English and Greek and specialises in legal, creative, and psychometrics. She is a Chartered Linguist, member of CIoL, ITI and PEM and she is registered with the Greek Consulate as a certified translator and interpreter. She holds a BA in English and Masters in Business Translation and Interpreting. She is a Steering Group Member of the CIOL Translating Division and CIOL Business, Professions and Government Division. She is an Associate Lecturer in Legal Translation at London Metropolitan University, a public speaker and writer for industry magazines. Her mission is to help you achieve your goals through the power of words. You can follow her on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.