Have you ever sat in a doctor’s office, struggling to understand unfamiliar medical terms? Now imagine you don’t speak English — and the struggle becomes impossible. And that’s where Martine Pierre-Louis and her team of medical interpreters come in.
“Having the doctor or the nurse slow down and pay attention to what the patient is trying to communicate is very important,” she says. “In truth, some English speakers could use that assistance as well!”
As the director of interpreter services at Harborview Medical Center since 2002, Pierre-Louis and her leadership team manage 30 certified interpreters, six caseworker-cultural mediators and two diabetes navigators. In all, the team knows 18 languages, including American Sign Language, and they work with patients and care teams in person, by telephone and by video.
But being a good interpreter is about more than just knowing the right words, says Pierre-Louis. She feels that making connections — across cultures or between doctor and patient — is one of the most satisfying parts of their work.
“Deep listening is incredibly important,” she says. “So is knowing the cultural context.”
As an example, Pierre-Louis tells the story of a navigator who was working with a patient with diabetes. The doctor knew that the patient was Muslim, but didn’t realize that she was fasting one day a week for religious reasons — it hadn’t come up. As a result, the doctor couldn’t figure out why the patient’s blood sugar levels had such drastic highs and lows.
“The patient thought of fasting as a religious practice, not a health practice,” says Pierre-Louis. “But it’s actually both. So her navigator was the one who helped the two of them understand that about each other and connect those two worldviews.”
Part of her program’s success, Pierre-Louis believes, is that it’s valued by her colleagues.
“Harborview’s community is really mission-focused,” she says. “Our teams are dedicated to service and to the belief that people deserve good care, no matter where they come from, what language they speak or what they’ve experienced in life. Folks will go the extra mile to make sure that happens.”
In fact, Pierre-Louis herself is going that extra mile: She’s a longtime donor to the interpreter services program and other Harborview funds. And, as Harborview’s Employee Giving campaign chair, she encourages her colleagues to give to programs they are passionate about.
Pierre-Louis, of course, is passionate about her job: about helping care teams and patients understand each other better and assisting teams in integrating treatment with a culturally sensitive approach.
“I think that there’s healing in people feeling fully understood, feeling that they are known,” she says. “If a doctor can listen and really hear that story, we are much more likely to truly help the patient.”
About Employee Giving
Pierre-Louis and many other employees gave to UW Medicine during the 2017–2018 fiscal year. In all, staff and faculty contributed $2.6 million to benefit research, education and patient care. Our thanks to everyone at UW Medicine who, like Pierre-Louis, chose to support the mission: improving the health of the public.