A veterinary request lost in translation
A language barrier presents the opportunity for hand motions, leaving the waiting room red-faced.When I look back on my last 25 years as a veterinarian, my goal as a practitioner has always been the same. I want to help people and make their animals happy. This moment was a test of that precept. It was a busy day at Brock Veterinary Clinic and I was trying to get things done so clients wouldn't have to wait. I hate to wait when I see a doctor, and it's made me paranoid that folks who see me hate to wait too.
When I look back on my last 25 years as a veterinarian, my goal as a practitioner has always been the same. I want to help people and make their animals happy. This moment was a test of that precept. It was a busy day at Brock Veterinary Clinic and I was trying to get things done so clients wouldn't have to wait. I hate to wait when I see a doctor, and it's made me paranoid that folks who see me hate to wait too.
There were dozens of people in the lobby waiting to have their animals tended to, and I was scurrying about when a woman entered the front door. I had seen her before but always with her husband. He wasn't fluent in English but knew enough to get things done.
(ILLUSTRATION BY MATT COLLINS)
I was walking past the front door when she entered and she politely grabbed the sleeve of my smock to get my attention. I could tell by the look on her face that something was urgent and she was afraid-and she knew very little English.
Why didn't I learn a language other than English? I've asked myself the question a thousand times. How can I help animals whose owners speak a different language if all I speak is common American?
This woman spoke German but her husband had told her what to say in English to accomplish what he had in mind for his cow. I'll never be able to write what she said, or even make it close to what I heard, but here is my attempt.
"Eyes nedsa toots ubes o ze tetza medoseenes foor ze cowaza r me huzbanza."
You may read that and know exactly what it means. But I had no idea. The buzz of the room silenced as we all looked deeply into her eyes to see if we could decipher what those words meant.
German? I don't even know the cuss words. But I can read facial expressions, and her face told me this was important. I did what my associate Dr. Dustin had taught me when speaking with people who don't speak English-I talked slow and loud. Like somehow that will make English understandable to any nationality.
I said, "Ma'am, I do not understand you. Can you please repeat what you need?"
She repeated herself and perhaps changed the emphasis on a syllable or two, but I still had no idea what she was asking for, although I did hear the word "need." The other people in the waiting room tried to help me, mumbling amongst each other about the pronunciation of several words and telling me what they thought she was saying. None of it made any sense.
Animals talk to each other without ever saying a word. They make noises and movements that communicate a wealth of information, and I was determined to do the same.
It was obvious that the language barrier was going to keep any form of activity stifled and she recognized it too. She read my concerned look and realized gestures were the only way we would get this task accomplished.
She repeated the exact sentence that she had said earlier. She said it a little louder and slower to conform to the Dr. Dustin means of communication, but she also added some very powerful hand gestures as she spoke. About halfway through the sentence, she began imitating the milking process as if she were a cow herself.
After the pantomime I turned red in the face and returned from the storage room with two tubes of teat medicine for her husband's cow.
Looking around the room I could see that I was not the only one red-faced and looking at the floor. One woman was telling her husband to stop talking and sit down. A 20-something fella was suddenly talking on his cell phone. Another middle-aged woman who had tried to help looked down at her own chest and around the room to see if anyone was perhaps waiting on her to do the same.
The German lady never blushed or looked remotely embarrassed. When she saw the two tubes of teat medicine, she just smiled and nodded her head vigorously. She gave the front desk person cash and walked out the front door totally satisfied that she had accomplished her mission for that day.
Dr. Bo Brock owns Brock Veterinary Clinic in Lamesa, Texas.