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BOISE — Communities across the world have been advised to avoid hospitals and health centers if they can, to reduce the risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19. Even so, there is still critical medical attention people without the virus need from their doctors.

Amid the outbreak, a group of Boise State University undergraduate students are continuing to use their Spanish language skills to help monolingual patients receive medical care at a community center that offers free care to low income and uninsured Idahoans.

The five students have been volunteering in three-hour shifts at Genesis Community Health since January, offering interpretation services four days a week for Spanish-speaking patients. A few students are volunteering their time to interpret through a video platform at home, while others are still going into the center.

The volunteer program began last August, said Fátima Cornwall, the Spanish language coordinator in the BSU World Languages program. The students in the program are required to take Cornwall’s medical interpreting class.

In order to qualify for the program with Genesis, the students must get through a half-hour interpreting interview with a certified interviewer.

Genesis is a health center that offers free medical, dental and mental health care to uninsured and low-income individuals.

“The service we provide is incredibly important,” said Rikki Fix, a BSU student who has been volunteering with Genesis since the beginning of the program. “I can’t imagine how frustrating and scary it must be to be in a room with a doctor who is only a few feet away from you, but whom you are unable to communicate your medical needs with.”

In an email to the Idaho Press, Fix said she has been in the room with patients who show obvious relief when they are greeting in Spanish, the language most familiar to them.

“I think that this language service helps to break down the doctor-patient barrier, which is critical for an open and honest appointment,” she wrote.

Dylan McCallum, another student in the program, said without an interpreter service, health care doesn’t work for people who don’t speak English well.

“If patients can’t say what their exact pain is, the doctor won’t understand what is wrong, and without us being there and helping these patients communicate what they need, they could get the wrong care or not enough care,” McCallum said.

McCallum recalled one patient he assisted recently who moved to Boise from Latin America. At the end of the patient’s appointment, McCallum asked him about his children and the man sadly replied that his children were still thousands of miles away, in Latin America.

“I realized, if I can improve his life a little bit while he is trying to make it here in America while his kids are on a different continent, that is all I want to do,” McCallum said.

IMPACT OF COVID-19

Fix said the lack of information about COVID-19 in Spanish has made her realize how important interpretation services are.

“Our services are helping members of our Spanish-speaking communities stay safe and feel heard,” she said. “During this uncertain time, I am happy to help foster an environment where our Spanish-speaking community members have a clinic they know they can go to and have a meaningful appointment where all of their needs are addressed.”

Milena Quiros, another student volunteering at Genesis, said the situation has also opened her eyes to how important interpretive services are in the medical field.

“Professional interpreters (are) very much needed because everywhere you go there are people who can’t speak English,” Quiros said in an email. “To be able to communicate to get medical help is very important.”

McCallum said he worries about the reduced staff that clinics are having to work with amid the coronavirus outbreak.

“I want to give respect and praise for the health care workers and even interpreters who are still there trying to care for patients,” McCallum said. “Everyone is working overtime to help people who need it. I hope they are all doing well and they get the recognition they deserve.”

Rachel Spacek is the Latino Affairs and Canyon County reporter for the Idaho Press. You can reach her at rspacek@idahopress.com. Follow her on twitter @RachelSpacek.

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