Health is Not a Universal Language

My parents settled in Texas from South Korea in 1991. In all those years, they have had no more than ten medical checkups. Combined. I remember my father driving a nail through his index finger and still refusing to visit the hospital.

Growing up, I believed it was because my parents were cheap. That the reason they dismissed medical care was that their ailments, which many others would consider severe, hadn’t crossed some arbitrary threshold into serious.

Yet, I was taken to the doctor at the slightest sniffle. I was ferried to various specialists for my eyes, teeth, feet, scalp, and skin. They didn’t flinch at the costs of my appendectomy or any of the three times I shattered my collarbone.

They were like any parent. Ready to sacrifice.

It wasn’t until recently that I understood why my parents didn’t visit the doctor for themselves. It wasn’t because hospitals didn’t hand out coupons or punch cards. It was because they were afraid that they would fail to communicate their needs and agree to something unnecessarily costly or dangerous. They were afraid of being taken advantage of.

Parents can get over that fear when the stakes are their child’s health. It doesn’t matter how much it costs, or if they even understood the treatment, as long as it kept their child healthy. This fearlessness doesn’t apply to themselves.

It’s hard enough for even native English speakers to fully grasp a doctor’s explanations of treatment. However, most of us still comprehend enough to understand why we need it at all. We make decisions based on the little we can grasp, but what if you don’t understand anything because you don’t speak the language?

Christine Von Raesfeld, CEO of People with Empathy, went through a similar experience when battling illness as a child. Her mother struggled greatly in explaining her childrens’ conditions to doctors or listening to the consequences. There was even a time when doctors warned her parents to say goodbye, yet her mother still didn’t understand the news.

“Hearing my mom’s story, and knowing my side of the story, I did not realize what she was going through in her communication issues with the doctors she was talking to… they had told my parents to say goodbye. This would be the last time that they could see me.”

Immigrants’ reluctance to go to hospitals is something found in most humans. We avoid uncomfortable situations and embarrassment at all costs. We don’t get on a stage to make a display of the things we’re bad at. That’s what going to a doctor as a non-English speaking immigrant is like.

To avoid this, many immigrants seek out doctors that accommodate their language and culture. The problem is that those doctors aren’t always equipped to identify and treat serious illnesses.

My aunt lived in the US for over 30 years. She regularly visited a Korean-speaking physician for checkups. It wasn’t until she returned to Korea a few months ago that she felt comfortable enough to visit a large hospital. Within a few days, she received a positive cancer diagnosis.

Lowering the language barriers to treatment in the US will dramatically help people get the level of treatment they need. If you want to learn more about making healthcare more accessible to immigrant families, then subscribe to Patient Orator today.

Published by Bryan Lee

Bryan Lee is a contributing writer with a journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He writes regularly for Patient Orator in matters regarding healthcare advocacy for individuals and other healthcare-related topics.

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