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When patients walk through the doors of Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center (SJPHC), they often hear “¿Hola como está, mi amor?”, Spanish for “Hello, how are you, my love?” With this phrase, Esperanza Castaneda, who registers patients at the front desk, puts patients at ease and helps them feel connected to their culture. She has been at SJPHC since 1999 and, in that time, has gotten to know thousands of patients.
“In my culture, we refer to people as ‘mi amor’ all the time,” said Castaneda, who was born in Guatemala City and came to the U.S. in 1984, when she began her career at BWH while taking English classes. “It builds a sense of community.”
Castaneda is one of many employees at BWH’s two community health centers whose ability to speak more than one language fosters connections with patients and makes them feel comfortable with the care they receive. Brookside Community Health Center cares for more than 10,500 patients from Jamaica Plain and the surrounding neighborhoods. More than 50 percent of them are native Spanish speakers and more than half do not speak English at all. At SJPHC, more than 50 percent of the 10,000 patients speak only Spanish.
At Brookside, Jeannine Sullivan, RD, senior nutritionist for the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program for patients in need of nutrition counseling, offers to speak in whichever language patients prefer, although some are bilingual. She begins appointments by asking patients “What are you worried about?”, or, “¿Hay algo que le preocupe?” Many patients of the WIC program are mothers seeking nutrition counseling for themselves or their children. Sullivan also sees patients suffering from obesity, anemia or diabetes. She was born in Mexico City and joined BWH in 1995.
Sullivan’s Brookside colleague, Maria Nunez, WIC outreach coordinator, also connects with patients and the community. She travels to local daycare centers, elementary schools, immigration services and other community centers to provide information about the WIC program and collect information about their services to share with patients at Brookside. Nunez hosts information sessions four to five times a month, during which she explains and translates information about the services available.
“People seem to relax and feel more comfortable when they realize I speak both English and Spanish,” said Nunez, who came to BWH from the Dominican Republic in 1987 and to Brookside in 1993.
The same holds true for Castaneda at SJPHC, where she assists both patients and staff in translating. “Esperanza approached me in the waiting room when I was attempting to communicate with a Spanish-speaking patient,” Regina Harvey, MS, RN, nurse manager at SJPHC, said. “She made it her responsibility to ensure the patient understood and felt comfortable with what was happening.”