My Fractured Spanish and Patient Power

Power gets in the way of compassionate care. The very words, “compassionate care,” smack of a power differential between the caregiver and the patient: Me Tarzan: healthy and something to give you. You Jane: weak, vulnerable, dependent. I cast about for ways to make the patient and me more equal, partly because that is what I wish in order to honor them as a sojourner on the path of life, and partly to put them at ease. Bad enough I am ordained clergy, authority figure par excellence and sometimes viewed with suspicion or distaste.

What I tend to do to level the playing field is at least offer choices. Does the patient even want a visit in the first place? If so, do they prefer conversation to prayer, or just quiet? Hold hands or not? I take note of my physical presence and minimize any implied superiority by sitting rather than hover over the bed. Most importantly, I let them set the agenda for our interaction. It is their choice whether to talk about Trump or trauma, stock tips or taking stock.

I recently got hired by Center for Hope Hospice in New Jersey because I can speak Spanish, among other reasons. I do not speak like a native or anywhere close, for sure, but enough to relieve the suffering of those who need to pour out their hearts. So here I am, a Jewish chaplain, hired to speak Spanish with Catholics! During some of these visits, clients sometimes step in and help me with my Spanish skills. I then joke and praise them for being my “profesor de español.” They laugh and are pleased to help, often continuing to offer other tidbits such as a grammatical correction. This is great for both of us: I get a Spanish lesson, and they get to take the lead in at least one respect.

In general, when I speak my fractured Spanish, I am deferring to the client, giving them the home team advantage. Perhaps too, English may have the connotation for them as “impersonal,” “cold,” “official,” “uncaring” or even “threatening.” As I put myself at a linguistic disadvantage, I may be receiving intimate and profound stories clients share that otherwise would have gone unheard and their unexpressed pain left in solitary confinement.


8 thoughts on “My Fractured Spanish and Patient Power

  1. Consuelo Beck-Sague says:

    I can’t imagine anything better than a humble, bookish Jewish chaplain, hired to speak Spanish with Catholics. Remember that we revere a Jewish chaplain who spent quite a bit of time and energy on the ill and dying as the Son of God. Even for fluent English bilingual Catholic Latino/as, there’s something healing about a humble person of God trying to speak to us in our language and gracefully accepting correction. 🙂


  2. Janet K Brown (@janetkbrowntx) says:

    I love the cover of your book, Karen. I always find it hard to minister to the hurting when I can’t identify with their pain. Mostly, I just listen. That might be the best thing to do, after all.


  3. Listeners are a scarce resource, so that is positively the best thing to do. Re; “love the cover.” There was love in the air when the artist designed it,as she was on her honeymoon!


  4. Jessica Perez says:

    Leveling the playing field is so important. Often times makes me a bit anxious. But I have learned that humility is one that works. However, letting the patient teach you something whether it be Spanish, talking about how to prepare a meal or how they used to garden does the job. It always makes the patient feel like they are in some way in control and helping even though they know (que pronto partiran de este mundo y no podran eseñar mas.) They will depart from this earth soon. Que bueno que sabes Español Karen. Un Judio que sabe mi idioma “formidable”



  5. Beau Nelson says:

    Thank you for your entry. I just started working as a chaplain at senior center in Jersey City, and many of the seniors are also Spanish-speaking Catholics. I have a very elementary understanding of Spanish and often find myself saying “Mi espanol es muy mal” which sometimes gets a chuckle from some and often an affirmation. I am working on learning more, but it is not easy. Thankfully we have many staff that speak fluently and often act as interpreters which helps to facilitate my relationship with these individuals, but it’s not how I want to operate forever.
    I appreciated the reminder about sitting rather than hovering over them as I speak with each person. I also appreciate the idea of letting them set the agenda! Instead of me trying to ask my simple questions or state my observations about the day or certain activities that are happening around us. Again, I’m grateful for the interpreters that I have. And thank you again!


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