From Haiti to Indy, interpreter lends an ear to patients

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03/06/2024

jeffson saint-hilaire language services interpreter

Jeffson Saint-Hilaire is the newest interpreter on the language services team at Riley and IU Health, helping those who speak Haitian Creole communicate with their care teams.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

Jeffson Saint-Hilaire took a legal leap of faith one year ago this week and moved to Indianapolis from his homeland of Haiti.

He left behind his mother, two sisters and friends, but also a country ravaged by natural disasters, political instability and violence.

Now, the 25-year-old has a new home – in Indianapolis and at IU Health, where he is the newest interpreter on a team of a half-dozen based at Riley Hospital for Children.

Language services is housed in the basement of the Riley Outpatient Center garage, but Saint-Hilaire and his colleagues are out and about every day at Riley, Methodist and University hospitals. Currently, there are 18 team members in language services, covering the three Downtown hospitals.

There, they work with care teams, patients and families to communicate medical information and questions in the patient’s native language.

Saint-Hilaire, who interprets for a growing local Haitian population that speaks Haitian Creole, began studying English and working as an interpreter while attending university in Haiti.

“I was interpreting back in Haiti, but I was just doing it as a passion,” he said. “I never knew it was going to be a career until I got here and saw the great influx of Haitians. I discovered it was a special ability, so when I moved here, I trained to be a medical interpreter.”

He joined the language services team at Riley last month and is thrilled to combine his passion for language with a desire to serve people.

“Seeing a doctor when you can’t understand what the doctor is saying is very frustrating,” he said. “So having this opportunity to help other people communicate is very fulfilling.”

Families are grateful, he said. He can see it in their smiles.

“When the patient sees you, they have a connection with you because of the language.”

Working alongside Saint Hilaire is Lorraine Morales, one of several Spanish interpreters on the team. She is from Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, but others are from Mexico, El Salvador, Peru, Honduras, Colombia and Venezuela.

Like the English language, there are different accents, dialects and expressions in Spanish, so interpreting can be challenging.

“As interpreters, we have to be able to understand what everything means in every country,” Morales said, adding that cultural differences are important to understand as well.

“It is so very fulfilling for me,” she said, as she and Saint-Hilaire talked about the program and how meaningful it is to be able to advocate for patients in person.

“Lorraine was one of the first to welcome me here,” Saint-Hilaire said about his cubicle neighbor, who loves to bake treats for her colleagues. “I’m fortunate to be working with her. She is teaching me Spanish, too.”

Indianapolis has been welcoming, too, he said, expressing gratitude to his host family for helping him adjust. The weather was a shock to his system when he first arrived from his Caribbean nation, where average temperatures are in the 70s and high 80s year-round, but he is getting used to it.

Being here is a godsend, he said, though he worries about his family back home.

“I talk to them every day, but the physical presence, for sure I miss that.”

Still, he feels blessed to be here, serving as a “bridge” between patient and physician, making sure families are seen and heard during their time in the hospital.