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Augusta Chronicle

Physicians Work To Assist Hispanics

By Tom Corwin

June 23, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Augusta Chronicle, Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

The doors to the emergency room part and a nurse approaches as you carry your feverish child in your arms. The nurse looks down and says, "Que es el problema con su nino?" She looks puzzled when you don't respond.

For many Augustans who speak only Spanish, it is the situation they face, only in reverse, when they must go to a doctor or the hospital.

Two Augusta-area physicians are bridging the language barrier for the growing Hispanic community even as other health care institutions gear up to accommodate Spanish-speaking patients.

It's a dilemma that English-speaking Augustans could find themselves in if they left their homeland.

"Imagine yourself in France, if you don't speak French, getting sick," said Lynnette Bauza, a pediatrician at the Medical College of Georgia who is originally from Puerto Rico. "It's traumatic. How are you going to transmit what you're feeling, where the pain is, if you don't know the language?"

Hispanics make up about 3 percent of the Augusta metropolitan population, an estimated 12,400 people, according to CACI Marketing Services, which based its estimate on U.S. Census data. The Hispanic population in the United States has grown so much that last week Census officials announced that Hispanics had become the nation's largest minority group at just under 39 million.

Yet there are still many misconceptions about Hispanics locally, said Tania Serrano, an obstetrician/gynecologist with Obstetrics and Gynecology Associates of Augusta.

The Hispanic community has a wide diversity of origins and status, she said.

"There are all different kinds. There are Puerto Ricans, there are South Americans," said Dr. Serrano, who was born in Cuba and has lived in the United States for 30 years. "Everybody who is (Spanish- speaking) in Augusta is not from Mexico."

"There's a misconception that people who speak Spanish are all illegal, and that's not true," Dr. Bauza added. "There are tons of professionals here that are Spanish-speaking and bilingual. We've seen an influx of legal and illegal Spanish-speaking people."

The majority of her Spanish-only patients are living in the community, trying to learn the language, and are working hard, Dr. Serrano said.

"They really want to take care of themselves. My pregnant patients - they do everything they can to have a healthy pregnancy."

But if the physician and the patient don't share a language, it can create problems, Dr. Serrano said.

"There are subtleties the physician needs to know, especially about certain problems," Dr. Bauza said, particularly with depression or anxiety.

"A lot of people don't come to you and say, `All of these terrible things that are happening to me, that I am feeling, might be because I'm depressed,' " Dr. Serrano said. "They don't tell you that. It's just through the history-taking process that you determine this."

Dr. Serrano and Dr. Bauza say they often have to help patients navigate the health care system: writing out patient-care and presciption instructions in Spanish, making follow-up appointments and fielding phone calls.

There should be mutual efforts to make the relationship work, Dr. Serrano said.

"We as a medical community have to do our part to be able to provide good medical care to the Hispanic community and make it easy for them to get medical care, but also the Hispanic community has a responsibility to learn English," she said.

Most area providers have some provision for Spanish-speaking patients. In July, MCG Hospital and Clinics will have a full-time translator on board, said hospital spokeswoman Danielle Wong.

University Hospital and Doctors Hospital use a phone system that allows the patient and health care provider to dial into an interpreter who can facilitate the visit.

St. Joseph Hospital has a list of volunteer translators and can also turn to the Rev. Miguel Grave de Peralta, its chaplain, said spokeswoman Penny Usherwood. Dr. Bauza teaches her medical residents some medical Spanish, and MCG offers it as an elective for first- and second-year students.

"Everybody needs to adapt," Dr. Bauza said. "The incoming population, it's adapting to our system, and we need to adapt also."

In many of the families Dr. Bauza sees, the young children have already become bilingual and can translate for their parents, she said.

"That has been happening in the States for years and years and years," she said. "It's just that we in this area have not been touched as much as larger cities."

It has been happening in America since the beginning, Dr. Serrano pointed out.

"Unless you're American Indian, your ancestors came here just like they did," she said. "And we have to accept that. It's part of our history."

Staff Writer MaryAnne Pysson contributed to this report.

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