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Overcoming language barriers with diverse veterinary staff
DVM Candidate whose first language is Chinese explains how this skill has served invaluable in providing high-quality patient and client care
The surgery resident entered the room and said in frustration, “That 45-minute call could’ve easily been 20 minutes.” When I asked her to clarify the situation, she explained that the owner of our emergency transfer case only spoke Chinese, so she had to use a translation service to communicate with the client. From personal experience, I know that the medical translation services are not the best and make having complicated conversations even more complicated. Fortunately, Chinese is my native language, so I offered assistance and utilized my skills to become a liaison between the owner and our team for the duration of the patient’s hospitalization and postoperative period.
The patient, Star, was presented to our service for urinary obstruction and required a cystotomy to remove the stones from his bladder. I did not (and notably, still do not, but hope to change that soon) have professional training in medical translation, so I turned to Google to assist in translating useful phrases such as urethra, stones, and urinary diet before speaking to the owner. Despite my inexperience in this new role, I wanted to clarify any questions that remained after the initial conversation to ensure the best post-operative care for the patient. The owner repeatedly expressed how incredibly grateful she was for someone who could assist directly within the team and understand her during such a stressful period of her life. Since the interactions I had with Star and his owner, I also came across a handful of other patients whose owners only spoke Chinese. With each additional case I translated for, my Chinese medical terminology grew. From cystotomy to splenectomy to fracture repair, I am now more proficient and confident in discussing treatment options and employing compassion and empathy to help owners navigate stressful situations.
Growing up, I did not have any veterinary role models I looked up to or dreamed of emulating. Despite being a lifelong pet owner and going to countless veterinary office visits, I realized I had never met a doctor who looked like me. In turn, I could never confidently say, “I want to be a veterinarian.” I subconsciously assumed someone like me could never be a veterinarian because of the lack of minority representation in the field. That is until I began my post-graduate career at one of the largest animal hospitals in the world in New York City. Being in the international hub of diversity, I was able to see and experience a diaspora of cultures and socioeconomic statuses that I would likely not be able to experience if I lived elsewhere. Now, with the support of a handful of Asian American doctors I worked with, I have finally found role models and the confidence to pursue this passion.
As a multilingual Asian American deeply rooted in my culture, I know that there will be many challenges I will need to overcome moving forward. It is not a hidden fact that the veterinary medicine field is a predominantly Caucasian field. I am glad to say that I do see familiar faces in the field, but there are still not a lot. However, through my interactions with non-English speaking clients, I have proven that I can and will serve as a powerful liaison between pet owners and doctors. I will ensure all parties have the proper knowledge and are confident in the excellent care that I provide.
Every day I find myself both in awe and content at the fact that I have been seeing more diverse faces in the field, whether that is of veterinarians, veterinary technicians, or veterinary assistants. Because of this, pet owners who only know how to speak Chinese, Korean, or Spanish will find comfort knowing someone can speak to them and not just a translation service that makes asking questions much harder. I realize that the growing diversity in the field gives owners a comforting and familiar presence when they face stressful situations, like having their fur baby in the hospital. I can be the veterinarian who inspires new generations of Asian American veterinarians who did not think that they could also become one, someone like my young self.
I want to become a veterinarian who can overcome language barriers to educate and comfort owners and understand both the owners’ and their pets’ needs and concerns. As someone who has been part of a minority population in multiple facets of life, I understand the effects of underrepresentation. The veterinarian’s role is crucial in bridging the gap between the patient’s inability to talk with the knowledge to understand what is happening to them systemically. I look forward to fulfilling that role by serving the needs of both animals and their owners and becoming a veterinarian who will provide the utmost and thorough patient and client care. Undoubtedly, I will continue my path through veterinary medicine and use my abilities to positively impact society, as I already am today.
Shareen Wong (she/her/hers) is a DVM Candidate at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine with an anticipated graduation of 2026.