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  • Writer's pictureLFaits

Lo Siento and Other Gems

Hola mi nombre es Siva!

(Pido disculpas por mi terrible español)

Yes, darlings–now that I’m at my second externship site where I’m fortunate enough to be learning Spanish on the fly, it’s time to brandish the big guns and start putting my money where my mouth is.

Let’s be real, Spanish is probably one of the most musical languages in the world. Everything sounds better in Spanish, like you’ve just sipped a delicious margarita or something.

It helps that I have a tenuous grasp of French (12 grades of French immersion but I’m still conjugating verbs with the help of my handy Bescherelle). French and Spanish have that common Latin root, and once your tongue can roll those “r”s you are pretty much set to jet.

I’m always amazed at the amount of patients that think I am Spanish–but then again it does really cut to the chase of why they made an eye appointment. If my ethnicity doesn’t scream Indian to you, it makes sense why you’re getting your eyes examined, doesn’t it?

No problema, senor. I’ll get you some nifty glasses.

All jokes aside, with the diversity of Chicago and the multi-ethnic tapestry that makes up the country as a whole, speaking multiple languages is more than an asset. It’s a sheer necessity.

I’ll admit the first few patients I had that didn’t speak English, French or Tamil (my Indian dialect) threw me for a loop. It kind of throws a wrench into it when you ask “What brings you into today?” with a big toothy smile and you get a deer-in-the-headlights look back. (Pro tip: When people stare at you, take the opportunity to note their palpebral fissure width and the whitness of the sclera and conjunctiva. That’s called two birds with one stone, sister friend.)

I resorted to learning one or two sentences to get the conversation flowing.

Tener asiento en la silla grande!

Mira mi oreja, no moviendo los ojos!

Qual es mejor, uno? Dos?

At least with optometry a lot can be understood by acting it out. When a patient mimes that they have to stretch their arms out to read, you can bet your bottom dollar that presbyopia is the culprit, that sneaky devil. (Borrosso para cira)

When they point to their cheeks and mime that their eyes are excessively watering, get out your Flu-Glo and be prepared to find some dry eye lurking. (Ojos mucho seco)

When they point to their knees… well, your guess is as good as mine. Pretend you didn’t see that.

The other good thing about not speaking the language is that you are by necessity a much faster clinician. As much as I adore casual chit-chat, when my verbage is limited to ten sentences, I know that this will be a speedy exam. I won’t get to know your grandchildren and we can’t both mutually complain about the traffic and/or the weather, but at least the eye exam part of the equation is taken care of.

Now that I’ve gotten to listen to fluent Spanish speakers for a few months, I’ve picked up enough to muddle my way through a comprehensive eye exam. It may not be perfect, but it’s better than the alternative (both of us staring at each other, gauging each other’s palpebral fissure widths).

At the end of the day, the lesson is that trying means more than anything else. Your best effort, despite a language barrier, means more to that patient than you could possibly imagine. My grandmother only spoke Tamil and I remember to this day how our dentist learned a few words in Tamil to put her at ease and direct her throughout her teeth cleaning–and it only solidified to me and my family what an exceptional human being he was. Patients are almost always more than willing to meet you halfway. Your earnest effort to address their eye care needs will leave a lasting memory, long after they stop smiling at your pronunciation. Trust me.

Can I in good conscience write that I speak Spanish on my resume? Of course not.

(In fact, I should probably update that bad boy soon–I’m not sure people care that I was a top notch babysitter from 1996-2000 anymore.)

Bottom line: Just try.

Google Translate is your new BFF.

Your retinoscopy and other objective findings will get sharper because you will rely on them more.

Learn how to say “Which is better, one or two?” and “I know, this drop stings like a mother” in every language you can think of.

And if I can act out “cataract” and get the patient to understand their lens changes, so can you.

Hasta Luego!

P.S. If I wasn’t already your first choice for Charades, I better be now. In fact, that was the whole point of this post. I just really want to be picked first for Charades.


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