Not Lost in Translation

June 8, 2011 No Comments   

Mary Martin doesn’t speak Russian. Despite that fact, the licensed practical nurse was able to provide home health care for a Russian immigrant recovering from heart surgery.

Paul Sheftel was born and lived most of his 80-some years in Moscow, a world away from Kentucky. His son, who had always dreamed of living in the United States, recently convinced his parents to move with him to Lexington. It was a struggle for the father and his wife to adjust to their new land; English was a major barrier. Shortly after the move, Paul needed heart surgery, which was performed at Saint Joseph Hospital. Not understanding English made their health care experience especially nerve-wracking.

Paul was referred to Saint Joseph-ANC Home Care for physical therapy and nursing care so he could continue his recovery at home. It soon became clear to the home health staff that because the Sheftels spoke so little English, they were frightened of strangers coming into their house.

Mary Martin was his nurse – or his angel in disguise.

“It was a challenging situation from the beginning because of the lack of communication,” according to Shannon Monroe of Saint Joseph-ANC Home Care. “Mary did a lot of things to help the Sheftels understand. If it took her two hours, she took two hours.”

Martin was assigned to monitor Paul’s oxygen level, his vital signs and the healing of his incision. Because of the language barrier, she had to come up with new ways to reach the Sheftels. She couldn’t talk fast or use big words and expect to gain their trust, she said. So “I learned to slow my mouth down and look into their eyes and talk directly to them. That made all the difference in the world.”

Communicating also involved “a lot of sign language” and pantomime. What helped was a handheld computer that Paul had. Martin would write a question for him, and then he would convert it to Russian with the machine. In addition, Mrs. Sheftel had a Russian-English dictionary that she thumbed through constantly.

Though they could barely speak English, they showered Martin with gratitude, she said. “They are the sweetest things that ever was. They’re great people – so easy to love.”

In time the nurse began trading recipes with the Russians. For their family reunion, she took them a batch of banana pudding. Mrs. Sheftel paid her back in banana bread. “She was so afraid it wouldn’t be American enough,” the nurse said. “But it was so good!”

Eventually Martin became like a family member. She still checks in with the Sheftels, she said. “They accepted me, and trusted me, and trusted my judgment,” she said. “These people put their lives in your hands. It’s not just a job. The patients know you’ll do your very best for them.”

Monroe could tell when she visited “how much the Sheftels adored her,” she said of Martin. “She is such a good nurse. Patients love her. She is irreplaceable!”

Saint Joseph Health System, Saint Joseph Hospital

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