“Do you feel safe at home, Dharma?”
This was the question that a Nurse Practitioner asked my dad recently. We were at his medical appointment and I was the interpreter by default. I just didn’t know how to ask my dad, in front of the nurse, if he felt safe with us at home, and interpret what he said back to the nurse.
As an immigrant, a person of color, and a first generation college graduate, wearing many different hats is not new to me. This morning’s experience, however, still felt strange and bizzare. Here I was, in a medical setting, asking my own dad if he felt safe living with us. I think such an experience is uniquely relevant only to immigrants and their children.
Interpreting in a medical setting is always an experience – you never know what you’re going to get and how you’re going to deal with it. Sometimes the experience is cringy and nauseating, like when you have to ask your own parents if they’re sexually active. Other times you really feel like you made a difference in someone’s lives, like this one time I happened to be the interpreter for a six year old boy who was dying of cancer. His mom was the only one present and to have all of her questions answered in a culturally competent manner and in a language she fully understood felt like the only embers of hope in an otherwise a dark and cruel world.
And sometimes, it changes YOUR life. I still remember this one time in Seattle when I was interpreting for this eldery woman who was seeing an optometrist to get her vision assessed. As the doctor conducted a series of tests to determine how well she could see, the woman seemed to see the letters and numbers of all shapes and sizes just fine. It was ME who struggled to see those letters and numbers from afar. Turns out MY vision was bad and I was the one who needed prescription glasses. If it wasn’t for that experience, I still probably wouldn’t have figured out that my vision has been poor for quite some time.
In between experiences of hope and empathy, awkwardness and revelations, today, I was subjected to a moment of self-doubt: does my dad feel safe at home with us?
“No we fight a lot”, I wanted to quip. However, I knew better than handing out a free invitation to a social welfare agent to knock on my door and preach about how to talk care of our parents when they’re the ones sending theirs to nursing homes.
I’ll end this entry with another layer of complexity that immigrants face in Western medicine. We were at the same hospital that my dad is used to visiting but at a different clinic. As a result, we had to provide the clinic with my dad’s family medical history. The nurse handed me a copy of their medical history form that I was supposed to fill out for my dad’s parents. My grandpa died two weeks before I was even born, in rural Bhutan, without EVER seeing a hospital. The old man worked on his farm all day and came home late in the evening and passed away without any fanfare. Even his own daughter learned about his death months later. To date, nobody knows the underlying medical conditions that led to his abrupt death.
What boxes of medical diseases do I check off for him? I am sure even my grandpa wouldn’t be able to answer this if he was alive.