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For many patients, hearing the words “you have cancer” will probably be one of the most shocking phrases they will ever have to process. But imagine hearing those words and not understanding what they mean because you don’t speak the language. That’s the reality for non-English speaking patients who walk into doctors’ offices and hospitals across the United States. Fortunately for patients at Moffitt Cancer Center, language will never be a barrier to receiving world-class care.

Moffitt’s Language Services department ensures all patients are automatically provided access to qualified interpreter services via phone, video or an in-person interpreter, free of charge. The cancer center treats patients from more than 130 countries, making communication in native languages critical for their safety and well-being.

Prado Antolino started working at Moffitt 17 years ago as a translator in the clinical research office. For the last ten years, she’s served as the manager for the Language Services department. Her team of seven interpreters, two coordinators, one supervisor, and one translator help facilitate all Spanish language needs for Moffitt patients. With additional external support using phone and video interpreting services, the team can provide access to more 180 languages, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 

“Although most people use the titles interchangeably, a translator works with written documentation exclusively, whereas an interpreter works with verbal communication,” Antolino explained. 

More than 800 documents – roughly 783,000 words – are translated each year at the cancer center. Moffitt interpreters provide nearly 7,000 in-person encounters each year including requests for American Sign Language, with an additional 10,000 minutes of video calls and 22,000 minutes of telephone interpreting per month.

“Our deaf patients always have an in-person interpreter,” Antolino said. “We work with the University of South Florida College of Communication Disorders to provide highly trained certified American Sign Language interpreters for our patients.” 

Antolino says it’s important for patients to receive critical medical information from a certified interpreter rather than rely on caregivers or untrained staff to translate on their behalf.

“Family members are usually with patients for support, so asking them to become medical interpreters can be burdensome,” Antolino explained. “More importantly, they are not bound by any code of ethics, so they could choose to hide information that they don't want the patient to know.” 

In addition, a caregiver could be fully bilingual, but may not be familiar with proper medical terminology in either language.

“We want patients to have all of the information about their condition so they can make the best decisions for their care,” said Antolino. “Our interpreters are trained to be completely unbiased, neither adding nor omitting information. We serve as a conduit between the provider and the patient.” 

Spanish interpretation is the most requested language service at Moffitt, followed by support for Arabic, Haitian Creole, Vietnamese and Mandarin. Patients who come to the cancer center for a blood and marrow transplant typically require the most interpretation services since they are more likely to be hospitalized for weeks leading up to and after their procedure.

Language Services Team

Moffitt Cancer Center's Language Services team.

The responsibility of serving as a medical interpreter at a cancer center has a profound impact on the team.

“The job is incredibly rewarding, but it can be very difficult as well,” said Antolino. “Interpreters become part of the patient's journey from the beginning and sometimes until the end. We're not the doctors or nurses sharing news with the patient, but we are using our voices on behalf of the patient and their providers.”  

September 30 is International Translation and Interpretation Day. It has been celebrated for decades on the feast of St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators, interpreters, librarians, and encyclopedists, who is best known for his translation of the Bible into Latin. In 2017, the United Nations adopted resolution to acknowledge the role of language professionals in connecting nations and fostering peace, understanding and development.

For Antolino and her language services team, the most gratifying part of the job is seeing firsthand how thankful patients are for the support.

“I recently received a thank you card in the mail from a patient who lives in Puerto Rico. The patient went out of his way to praise the team, gushing about the incredible service he received from all of the interpreters during his time at Moffitt,” Antolino shared. “He described them as warm and competent, saying he always felt very well taken care of. I shared the letter with the team to remind them that their jobs truly make a difference. They might not be able to cure their cancer, but they do help patients through their journey, nonetheless. Even though it’s our voice that patients hear when they receive news, sometimes life changing news, our patients still extend so much grace to us. They teach us lessons on how to be brave.”

Today we say thank you, gracias, mèsi, grazie, takk, and shukraan to medical interpreters Josselyn Balcomb, Rafael Cardona Beauchamp, Elisa Díaz, Rafael Mas Nieves, Annie Oliver, Carmen Pasolli, Mónica Pérez and Néstor Trejo Moret, translator Sandra Cadavid, coordinators Shanta Ali and Manuel Barrera Téllez, supervisor Carmen Almonte, and manager Prado Antolino.