Sharing the luck

Today I feel lucky. Lucky that I can speak several languages and that I can get the information I need in my languages. I feel lucky. We are lucky. I’ll repeat this several time in the next lines.

Back in September 2011, I had a catastrophic hiking accident in the Olympic National Park in Washington State. I was standing on a nice hill called Sand Point with my wife and two of my children. We were enjoying the amazing view and the quiet outdoors, but for some reason I’ll probably never know, I fell from the cliff. The good news is that my wife and family, together with other hikers and the ranger, saved my life and I survived the accident. I was treated in Harborview Medical Center (HMC) in Seattle, Washington, and during the months since the accident, I’ve gone through a major rehab process. Due to my traumatic brain injury, I had to have speech therapy and neuropsychology evaluations — luckily, I aced them.

This experience taught me numerous lessons about life, physical freedom and independence. But beyond all that, I realized again the importance of languages.

It started when I woke from my coma, and could hear people around me speaking English, Hebrew and French. I could hear and understand the doctors, nurses, therapists and my family. I could start my speech therapies and undergo neuropsychology, which looks at the integration of psychological observations with neurological observations on the brain and nervous system.

We lived in German-speaking Switzerland for many years. In the event of such an accident, I’m sure the medical treatment would have been amazing. But as I don’t speak German, would I have been able to do speech therapy? Would I understand when the doctors explained the extent of my injuries, and what I would have to do to get well? Would they have had to relocate me to another country where I can speak the language — Israel? The UK? France?

French and Hebrew are my mother tongues, and I speak English, so I spoke the same languages as my therapists. HMC has a significant set of interpreters who work day and night to give support to those patients who don’t speak English. But clearly, it is better if you speak the language of the health provider. I cannot imagine someone going through this process without knowing the language. Can you imagine having cognitive therapy in a language you cannot understand?

I’m writing those words to emphasize how lucky I am. But let us think about the millions of people who cannot access health information in their native languages. Think about families in Africa or in Haiti. Think, even, about some of the homeless people you see on the street.

Language and health are connected. People who don’t share a common language with their health practitioners have poorer health, suffer more from diseases and die younger. Translators without Borders (TWB) is working on just this issue. The nonprofit that represents all of us in the language industry gives humanitarian organizations a platform where they can link up with volunteer translators working around the globe.

I’ve been a board member of TWB for over a year, but it wasn’t until my accident that I experienced firsthand how important language is, and realized how much you need to have information in your language. This year, TWB started a new initiative in Africa to help deliver health information to people in their own languages. Since the only health information most Africans will see in their lifetimes is in English, French or Portuguese, the first thing that TWB is doing to bring down this language barrier is to train local translators.

In April, an initial set of workshops was given in Kenya where people from various professions came to learn how to translate health information for their communities. In August, TWB will continue the workshops, and they are working to expand this pilot to other places in the world. It’s time for us to contribute to this wonderful effort by translating, by volunteering and clearly by helping financially. TWB needs our support to extend its activities to help people get information in their language.

We are lucky. Let us join forces to give other people the opportunity to be lucky too.