tients, family members, and staff. Between stops,
she explains: “A good medical interpreter can
express a conversation word for word, duplicating
every nuance and inflection. But you also need
compassion and interpersonal skills.” Meeting
a son who believes that he’s perfectly capable of
speaking for his elderly father, Ngan once again
explains why her services can help. The son finally
accepts the offer and then thanks her profusely.
“Family members often don’t realize that their
attempts to interpret can be counterproductive,”
Ngan says. “They’re emotionally involved and
don’t know the medical language.”
Listening between the Lines
A Day in the Life of Medical Interpreter Hei Ngan
Medical interpreter Hei Ngan, center, interprets for a patient receiving occupational therapy.
Since her first year as a medical interpreter at NYU Langone Medical Center
in 2009, Hei Ngan has seen the number of Chinese-speaking patients increase
significantly. Ngan credits the rise to Jody Gill, director of Language, Cultural, and
Disability Services, and her staff of five interpreters, a program manager, and a
program coordinator. Gill’s department is augmented by several freelance and agency
interpreters who provide face-to-face interpreting, as well as a company used for
telephonic interpreting for emergencies, after hours, when a face-to-face interpreter
is not immediately available, or for languages that are less common. “In any given
month,” notes Gill, “more than 30 different languages are spoken by our patients.”
12:40 p.m. Ngan is paged by the Critical Care
Unit. Over the past month, she has visited an elderly
man in bed there several times. Today, he has taken
a turn for the worse, and his physician needs to
communicate the gravity of his condition to the pa-
tient’s wife. “We have to take out the feeding tube,”
says the doctor. “It’s posing a serious risk. We can
do a tracheotomy, but that’s a short-term fix. There’s
nothing else we can do. Your family has a difficult
decision to make.” A meeting with the family is
scheduled for the following day.
8:50 a.m. After printing out her daily schedule of
prescribed sessions, Ngan scrolls through the com-
puter, trying to assess which patients speak Man-
darin or Cantonese, the dialects she’s fluent in. This
is just one way the department tries to ensure that
any patient who may need an interpreter will have
one available. “We’ll block out time between ap-
pointments to visit patients who may not have been
scheduled,” she explains. In NYU Langone’s Tisch
Hospital, Ngan walks into the room of a middle-aged
Asian woman, who shakes her head good-naturedly
in response to Ngan’s offer to interpret. “She’s Ko-
rean, which I don’t speak,” says Ngan, whose own
heritage is Chinese. “Some Korean surnames are
similar to Chinese ones.” Ngan, 27, studied at a bi-
lingual (Cantonese and English) school in her native
Hong Kong. “It wasn’t until high school that I learned
the Mandarin dialect,” she explains.
1:55 p.m. Ngan’s next assignment is Wen Wan
Chu, a petite 76-year-old woman who broke both
of her wrists in a spill, yet exudes an infectious joy.
“Do you have any pain?” asks her physical thera-
pist. “Oh, yes,” Chu answers in English, before rat-
tling off a string of words in Mandarin. Ngan inter-
prets: “But I’m feeling much better.” Chu slacks off
on her three-pound barbell curls, mostly to see if
the therapist is paying attention. Then, when chas-
tised, she furiously starts curling. “Slower,” says
the therapist. Ngan interprets, “Marn marn lai.”
“Ah, marn marn lai,” repeats Chu, who slows her
movements to a virtual stop. It’s an old joke that
still makes everyone laugh.
9:45 a.m. Ngan’s first scheduled appointment is
with a 70-something patient receiving occupational
therapy at N YU Langone’s Rusk Institute of Rehabili-
tation Medicine, but before she can ask a question, the
patient’s daughter shoos her away. In Cantonese, Ngan
explains why it’s important to use a trained medical
interpreter and not a family member, but to no avail.
“Some Chinese people are ashamed that they can’t
communicate in the language of their adopted coun-
try,” she explains. “They believe it’s their fault.”
11:00 a.m. Ngan moves throughout the Medi-
cal Center facilitating communication among pa-
5:30 p.m. Ngan heads to her last appointment,
an 11-year-old patient with leukemia who is having
his final weekly treatment after three grueling years.
His mother can barely contain her emotions about
this long-anticipated moment, and she is finding
it difficult to convey her appreciation to Ngan and,
especially, to her son’s physician, Elizabeth Raetz,
MD, associate professor of pediatrics and a pediatric
oncologist. “It’s been a long haul, and we’re all kind
of emotional today,” says Dr. Raetz. “Ngan has been
here week after week. The family knows and trusts
her. We all love her.” For the first time today, the
interpreter is at a loss for words.
to a coworker and, before long, was being rushed by
ambulance to N YU Langone’s Emergency Department.
At first, the diagnosis was not clear.
“The first day I met Lauren, she was unable to
“Syndromes like migraines and seizures can cause
symptoms similar to those of a stroke, and in a
younger patient, the first diagnosis is not typically
a stroke,” explains the physician who treated Kent,
Keith Siller, MD, assistant professor of neurology
and psychiatry, and the stroke center’s director. An
MRI soon revealed that Kent had developed a total
occlusion of the right carotid artery, caused by a tear
along the inside wall. Blood, unable to flow to the
brain, clotted within the artery, triggering a “brain
attack.” The likely culprit: the shoulder bag she wore
during the race.
“The MRI showed a large stroke in progress,”
reports Dr. Siller. “Massive brain swelling began to
occur, and Lauren was in a potentially fatal situation.”
The next several days were touch and go, but eventually
Kent was off the ventilator and out of immediate
danger. By then, however, the stroke had done its
damage: her left hand and arm were largely paralyzed,
her left leg weakened, and her speech impaired.
After three weeks at Tisch, most of it spent in
the Neurological Intensive Care Unit, Kent was moved
to N YU Langone’s Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation
Medicine, where she underwent six weeks of treatment.
“She was very weak and needed just about everything
we could offer—physical therapy, occupational therapy,
speech therapy, cognitive therapy, and vocational
rehabilitation,” explains Ira Rashbaum, MD, clinical
professor of rehabilitation medicine and chief of
stroke rehabilitation at Rusk. “But she had an excellent
attitude and, through sheer determination and hard
work, made incredible progress. It was what you’d
Therapists put Kent through her paces for hours
each day, including forced use of her weakened left
arm and leg and repetitive drills to promote motor
learning. Strapped to her calf was an electrical
stimulator that helped Kent lift her left foot and
walk increasingly longer distances, sometimes
accompanied by her mother, Jan, who came down
from Syracuse, N Y.
move her left arm and had minimal movement in her left
Another Kind of Marathon (continued from page 1)
leg,” recalls Licet Echevarria, PT. “By the time she left
Rusk, she was able to walk two city blocks with a cane.
Her work ethic was a huge part of her recovery, and truly
an inspiration.” That admiration is echoed by Mauricio
Magana, PT, Kent’s outpatient physical therapist,
who worked closely with her for seven months. Their
rigorous regimen of walking, stretching, and balance
and strength training paved the way for the unthinkable:
Kent was once again able to jog and run.
Kent is the first to admit, of course, that there are
still obstacles to overcome and deficits to deal with.
While some movement has returned to her left arm, her
left hand has none. It can take her a while to remember
things, but she is confident that “stuff will come back.”
Kent’s return to her job part-time and short jogs in her
Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, neighborhood help to keep her
spirits up. So does the dream that one day she’ll be able
to compete again in the New York City Marathon. “But
not with the bag,” she says with a laugh.
Web Extra: for an audio slide show about Lauren Kent’s
remarkable journey and recovery, see “Another Kind of
Marathon” at www.newsandviews-digital.com.