The assignment

On one occasion, not long after obtaining my Level 6 Diploma in Community Interpreting, I was asked to attend a hospital assignment in person.

The patient was a young child, only just turned pre-school age. The child was being admitted into day surgery to remove the vast majority of their (not long erupted) teeth due to extensive decay. I kept my professional façade all throughout the pre-operation assessments and the hours of waiting. I was polite to the parents, keeping out of the way unless my interpreting services were needed. On occasion I engaged with the child, who was initially playful despite the circumstances, and made sympathetic noises when the child started getting upset and hungry, having been on nil-by-mouth since the night before.

Breaking point

The moment I nearly broke was when it was time to take the child through into the theatre. Only one parent was allowed to enter, plus the interpreter. The mother’s tear-streamed face and heartfelt sobs coupled with her sheer inability to face watching her own child being put to sleep made my own eyes well up in a completely subconscious show of empathy. Still, knowing my place, I shook it off and followed the father into the operating theatre. What ensued there is still firmly etched in my brain. I will never forget the look of panic in the child’s eyes when the mask with the anaesthetic gas was placed and forcibly held over their mouth, nor will I forget the waves of emotion showing on the father’s face as he pinned the child’s arms against its body to stop it tearing at the mask.

It was simply horrendous.

I had not been prepared for it; I’d never had to encounter this situation in my personal life. The doctors around us seemed completely unfazed. But for the father, and for me, it was a torturous ordeal. Luckily, it did not last long. The child was successfully put to sleep, the father and I were asked to leave and then it was time to sit and wait for the operation to be done. I took myself to the other end of the waiting area to regain my composure and try and get over the experience I’d just had. I figured that this must have been the worst of it and the remainder of the assignment would be much simpler.

Unfortunately, I was wrong.

An hour or so later, we were called into the recovery room, where the child was coming around from the anaesthetic. The doctors said the child would likely be quite tearful, that it was a natural human reaction. Tearful was an understatement. The child was in an incredible amount of pain, having had nearly all their teeth removed – only 3 or 4 were left. As with any extraction, there was blood, but due to the scale of the operation, the blood was continuously pouring out of the child’s mouth. The more the child cried, the more the doctors insisted it needed to calm down to allow the wounds to start closing up. For nearly an hour, doctors were unable to administer pain relief as the child would not accept the syringe in the mouth. The parents were horrified, helpless and covered in blood. And I had to remain present for the whole aftermath in case I was needed again.

Driving home in a daze

That evening, in the car, driving home after over 5 hours spent with that family in the hospital, I felt completely drained. My emotions were all over the place. I kept thinking about the poor child, the predicament it was in through no fault of its own, the (lack of) actions of the parents that had led them to that operating theatre, the raw emotion expressed by the mother and the father, the bloody mouth with only a handful of teeth remaining until adult ones grew in some 5-10 years later. It hit me all the more, coming home to my own little pre-schoolers. And although a number of years have passed since that assignment, the whirlwind of feelings has stayed with me to this day.

Who to turn to for support?

At the time of this assignment, I had not long been qualified and had never experienced this kind of intensity in previous interpreting sessions. Looking back, I know it hit me particularly hard because I had very similar domestic circumstances and, in these situations, one can’t help but empathise. Although the experience did not leave me ‘scarred’ and I would not say I felt I needed counselling or any formal intervention, I can see that I was inadequately prepared for creating the much-needed separation between work life and private life. Upon my return home that evening, I simply could not hide my emotions in front of my family. I allowed myself some time to ‘feel’ the mixture of sadness, anger, anxiety and relief and then decided not to think about it anymore, until it came to writing this post. I am still not sure whether this is the healthiest way of dealing with and overcoming similar situations, but seeing as thus far I’ve not come across any accessible interpreter-focused coping mechanisms, it will have to do.


(To be continued…)