By Philip Walzer

A Spanish-speaking patient with limited fluency in English came back to the Chesapeake Care Clinic one morning last month to find out what was causing her severe stomachaches.

The diagnosis got technical, but she had no trouble understanding it, thanks to Old Dominion University student Cydney DeWees.

DeWees, who’s majoring in Spanish, translated back and forth between the doctor and the patient, not missing a beat. The patient’s liver was fine, but she had contracted a bacterial infection, which could be treated with four medications, to be taken twice a day for 10 days.

The patient was relieved. She wondered, though, why her liver readings had been high. Again, DeWees explained the doctor’s theories to her. It could be because she had previously contracted hepatitis A or she might have a fatty liver, but there was nothing to worry about.

The clinic provides medical and dental care to low-income and uninsured residents of Hampton Roads. DeWees interns there eight hours a week as part of a program launched by Luis Guadaño, associate professor of Spanish. One to three ODU students have translated at the clinic every semester since 2021.

“It’s a real opportunity to strengthen my Spanish,” said DeWees, who made a presentation to the ODU Board of Visitors about the program in December. “I thought it would also be a great opportunity to learn about different cultures and meet a lot of people who speak Spanish as a first language.

“The patients remember who you are and how you’ve helped them,” she added. “You can make a difference for them.”

Previously, patients had to bring a friend or relative fluent in English to the clinic to communicate with healthcare personnel. The addition of the student interpreters has expanded the clientele and, more importantly, improved healthcare outcomes, said Dourina Petersen, executive director of the clinic.

The percentage of Spanish-speaking patients rose from 8% in 2021 to 44% last year, she said, and the overall number of patients also increased slightly. “Spanish interpreters bridge the communication and cultural gap, creating a place where patients feel respected and understood, which ultimately improves the quality of healthcare delivered,” Petersen said.

“The patients remember who you are and how you’ve helped them,” said Cydney DeWees. “You can make a difference for them.”

Without translation help, patients face a severe disadvantage, Guadaño said. “You could be very kind in English, but there’s confusion on the other side. As a result, patients might only come in for one visit.”

The program began offering translation help in the fall of 2021 for patients sent by Eastern Virginia Medical School’s HOPES Free Clinic to ODU’s Konikoff Dental Hygiene Care Facility. Guadaño shifted the program to Chesapeake Care Clinic the following year.

To intern at the clinic, students must be enrolled in the Spanish 369 practicum class and have already gained nine credits in upper-level Spanish courses.

“Quite a few students stay on after the internship,” Petersen said. “They love the clinic and what we’re doing here.”

DeWees is interning for the second straight semester. Three other students volunteered last summer, and three 2023 graduates – Nancy Aguilar, Michelle Fischer and Kiah Green – now work at the clinic as part-time receptionists, often using their Spanish skills. While DeWees was in examination rooms that morning, Aguilar, Fischer and Green were checking in patients or answering calls. 

A man and a woman pose for a photo together.
Cydney DeWees (left) interns at the Chesapeake Care Clinic eight hours a week as part of a program launched by Luis Guadaño (right), associate professor of Spanish. Photo Chuck Thomas/ODU

“There’s a huge difference between learning a language in the classroom and working with people whose native language is Spanish,” said Fischer, who works at the clinic 25 hours a week and majored in Spanish and game design. “I’m enjoying working here. I can practice my Spanish while also helping people in need.”

Nancy Aguilar, who works at the clinic 35 hours a week and majored in Spanish, said, “It makes me feel really good seeing their faces. They know ‘there’s somebody here that can help me.’”

DeWees said she knows “the stakes are so high. You have to make sure you’re relaying the right information.” In the instances when she didn’t know the Spanish equivalent of a word, she’d consult a dictionary app or ask the patient a follow-up question.

But that happens rarely now. Her medical vocabulary has expanded. She’s learned, for instance, that the Spanish for blood pressure is la presión. Aguilar, who works in the dental section, now knows that root canal translates to la endodoncia.

For students, Guadaño said, “the benefit is they realize that what they are learning in class actually has a practical application in real life. They can see they’re having a positive effect.”