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Lost Voices: Where to find Spanish Speakers in a Hospital

Mateo had a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy on Wednesday at Boston Children's Hospital in Waltham. We made this decision after much deliberation, but for our poor four-year-old who had never slept through the night due to his enlarged tonsils, we hoped the surgery would greatly improve his quality of life. 

While he played with a Mario Donkey Kong toy set, we spoke with multiple staff people about his imminent procedure. As the unofficial representative of our family in these situations, I did most of the talking and consent-form signing, but Francisco was there supporting both Mateo and me. 

We discussed the procedure with the preoperative holding nurse and she explained that when it was time for the surgery, Mateo would be wheeled away into the operating room where he would receive anesthesia by mask and then have his IV put in. I thought he might be nervous in the operating room without us, so I asked the nurse if there were any Spanish-speaking members of the surgical team. I told her that although we were all three bilingual, Mateo's dominant language was Spanish and hearing Spanish in the operating room would definitely calm him. So if there happened to be any bilingual Spanish speakers during his operation today, to encourage them and invite them to speak to Mateo in Spanish.

The preoperative holding nurse told me there were two Spanish-speaking nurses on staff, and she could ask and see if they were working that day.

A few minutes later she returned and told me unfortunately neither of the Spanish-speaking nurses were currently on shift. I said that was okay and that Mateo would be completely fine because he does understand English fluently. 

But then I started thinking... of all the surgical staff at an urban hospital such as Boston Children's of Waltham, only two are Spanish-speaking. Two. In a city that is 15% Latino and a county where 27% of residents speak a language other than English at home, the fact that such a prestigious hospital only employs two Spanish-speakers in the East Wing shocked me. 

Not long after, Mateo did get rolled into the operating room and the staff encouraged us to pop down to the cafeteria to grab a snack while we waiting. Since Francisco and I had fasted along with Mateo, we were both hungry, so we did go downstairs to find something to eat. 

As we descended the stairs into the cafeteria, the first words we heard were Spanish, as the chef was preparing a sandwich for a janitorial employee, and both were conversing in Spanish. I turned to Francisco and said, "We found the Spanish speakers." 

And the disparity was glaringly clear. Spanish was not in the operating room at Boston Children's Hospital of Waltham. It's in the kitchen. What a disappointing realization that was.

And that’s why we need to not only tell our bilingual kids that they can be anything and do anything, we also need to give them the skills and opportunities for achievement and advancement. Not only can they be doctors and lawyers and architects, they need to be doctors and lawyers and architects. 

So maybe one day if Maya and Mateo have to bring one of their children to a surgery, the staff will be able to speak whichever language puts them at ease.


  1. Thank you for sharing Mateo's journey with us. Wishing him a speedy recovery after his tonsillectomy. Your detailed account will surely help many families going through similar experiences Visit - in wall speakers for home


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