Translators indispensable to medics in Panama

Staff Sgt. Juan Gutierrez, a bilingual dental technician from the 42nd Medical Group deployed to Medical Readiness Training Exercise Panama, cleans a patient’s teeth at a school in Pesé, Panama, Monday. (Air Force photo by Capt. Ben Sakrisson)

Staff Sgt. Juan Gutierrez, a bilingual dental technician from the 42nd Medical Group deployed to Medical Readiness Training Exercise Panama, cleans a patient’s teeth at a school in Pesé, Panama, Monday. (Air Force photo by Capt. Ben Sakrisson)

PESE, Panama -- Doctors from the U.S. Air Force and Panama began offering free medical care at the third and final site for Medical Readiness Training Exercise Panama at a middle school here Monday.

While the doctors say the mission has been successful on a number-of-patients-seen basis, an important lesson learned thus far for the MEDRETE is that good interpreters are indispensable.

"A translator is essential, like I need a stethoscope, that is how crucial they are," said Capt. Derick A. Sager, a flight surgeon general medical officer from the 14th Medical Group at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. "I also respect the work that many of them are doing with the Peace Corps."

A few members of the U.S. Air Force team are fluent in Spanish, such as Staff Sgt. Juan Gutierrez, a bilingual dental technician here from the 42nd Medical Group.

"It is a necessity: You need to have somebody who can speak both languages very well, it is almost mandatory," he said.

Others began the mission with a virtually nonexistent Spanish vocabulary and have tried diligently to pick up a few words to make checkups run more smoothly; sometimes this minimalist approach works, but often a translator's services are required.

Positions for translators were not funded on this mission; fortunately, volunteers heard that the doctors were coming and showed up on the first site in Cabuya to offer their services.

"The translators not only translate for the patients, they assist us in learning the language as well," said Maj. Mikelle A. Maddox a family practice doctor from the 42nd Medical Group.

Volunteer translators have arrived from all walks of life: Peace Corps, volunteer groups, Americans living in Panama, and local residents who speak some English. Some translators lived in the United States for schooling in the past and spoke with near native fluency; others had to revive long-dormant English knowledge.

"I don't know what we would have done without Juan here," said Capt. Matthew J. Edwards a dentist from the 314th Medical Group at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark. "It has been great having a translator who is familiar with dental."

Panamanian and U.S. Air Force doctors are working together here until Thursday to give free medical care to patients in remote areas during MEDRETE Panama.

They have seen approximately 5,000 patients at three separate locations in the first seven working days of the mission.