At Woodhull Hospital, Agnieszka Riley wears several hats.
Riley, 50, was hired about 15 years ago to help Polish patients navigate the public hospital system, a landscape especially intimidating for those who don’t understand English. She now works as an interpreter and patient representative, but still helps when she encounters a confused patient wandering the halls.
A Polish native, Riley also serves as a patient experience ambassador, chronicling letters sent to the hospital. She smiled when she finished reading one of the notes.
“How can you not love what you do?” she asked.
WHAT’S IT LIKE TO BE A MEDICAL INTERPRETER?
We’re in the back, we are invisible, we [are] just actually the communication, the voice. So we try to actually in the room go behind the patient and just be the voice, nothing else.
HOW DO PATIENTS REACT WHEN THEY REALIZE SOMEONE SPEAKS THEIR LANGUAGE?
Happy, relieved. Very thankful. Our culture, Polish culture does chocolates. They bring us chocolates, and we cannot say no because this is our culture.
WHAT’S THE MOST CHALLENGING PART OF THE JOB?
Keeping up, learning. That’s every day, and we do a lot as far as interpreters who have to be careful because this is life and death situations. We need to make sure that we’re keeping our medical vocabulary up to the date.
WHAT’S THE FUNNIEST INTERACTION YOU’VE HAD?
I was called to the room and the patient was doing labor. We as interpreters, we are not visible. So patient scream, I scream. And any words patient says, I say in English. So that was, my tears was coming, that was so funny. But you know I have to keep professional, keep saying, keep doing. So I felt in the end of it, the baby was mine too, that I pushed the baby with their parent.
IS IT DIFFICULT TO GIVE BAD NEWS TO PATIENTS?
Very difficult, very much so. I believe being a voice for doctors and a voice for them, I feel like those diagnoses are very close to me. …
We have a patient who came in with the fourth stage of cancer. …
We ask her, “If you’re gonna be able to be discharged, what is your wish, where do you wanna go? Where are you going back, what’s your address?”
She said, “Home.”
“Where is home?”
“Home is Poland.” …
I ask her, “Do you have a passport?” She say, “No, I don’t have a passport.” So I reached to Polish embassy, I was able to get the counsel, who come in here do the passport next, by her bed. …
Then during her hospitalization, patient really got very sick, so we thought she’s not going to make it. But somehow, with the amazing doctor and our oncologist, we’ve been able to get her the treatment. …
So then we decided by the end was the time which our doctors say, “Well, you ready. You’re clear to travel to Poland.” And I was actually asked by our provider if I will be able to get her back to Poland, and I say, “Absolutely.” …
I never ever see family crying, and hugging each other, and not letting go. And I was there and the daughter, she was all like you know, she hugged me and she didn’t let me go for 20 minutes.