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Caring Is Caring — In Every Language

by Sarah Manongdo-Joya, OD, Chicago, Illinois
A knock on my door, pretty unusual since I was in the room already with a patient.
I excused myself from my patient, sat back and put away the slit lamp to open the door a crack.
“Dr. Joya? Sorry to bother you. Our next patient is deaf or hard of hearing. Her translator couldn’t make it today. Should we continue?”
I told my tech to go ahead and finish pretesting.
It’s not unusual for our office to accommodate the deaf/ hard of hearing. But I appreciated the heads up.
I finished my last patient and got ready to welcome the next. She was a 20-year-old young woman who looked hesitant to come in. She pointed to her phone where she had typed out “I am deaf. I will type my responses on my phone or write on a paper if that is ok.”
I smiled and nodded, then began to slowly, haltingly sign: “My name is Dr. Joya, I will check your eyes today. How are you?”
What I didn’t expect was for her to start crying; she typed on her phone, “May I give you a hug?”
Her eye exam was unremarkable in many ways, but what transpired was humbling. I proceeded to check her refraction and continued with the health check. She signed the letters she saw on the screen and I gave her choices–1 or 2–holding up the appropriate fingers to which she responded. Afterwards I signed simply, “Your eyes are healthy. Pick out new glasses. See you next time,” to which I received another hug.
Sometimes we take for granted our ability to communicate with other people, and when it is taken away or we find ourselves unable to get our point across without difficulty, it can be very daunting. I was super grateful I took a crash course in American Sign Language through a teacher friend. She was able to show me how to sign a few relevant phrases and confirmed my letter signs that I remember from childhood. I need a refresher but the basics helped me get through to my patient that day.
I’ve been in corporate optometry/primary care for the last 17+ years, so I’ve had the privilege of meeting patients from all walks of life and all age groups.  I came to America as a 12-year-old from the Philippines, and I was fortunate enough to grow up bilingual. English is my primary language alongside my native tongue. The transition to Western life was smooth for me. I showed a proficiency in learning Spanish, even though I have never taken classes formally until 8th grade in the U.S., as the Filipino language shares Latin roots. I took the requisite amount of Spanish to fulfill graduation requirements, never thinking this would be useful to me again in my chosen career. Currently I spend the vast majority of my time speaking a language not native to me, and I am so glad I am able to do that for my non-English speaking patients and staff. Even bilingual people show gratitude that I am attempting to communicate with them in their own language to put them at ease and to better explain the test results and next steps to them and their families.
Sometimes they even teach me a better and more efficient way to phrase something.
To my patients: muchas gracias. Maraming salamat po. Thank you for teaching me something new.
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