¿Cómo Se Dice ‘Dilated Cardiomyopathy’?


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Miami, where I live, can be an odd place to be a service professional. Whether you’re a physician, accountant, bank teller or hotel clerk, you’d best speak some Spanish. (While you’re at it, Portuguese and Creole would be a boon to your career, too.)

Like other U.S. cities, Miami is getting more Hispanic every day. The whole state, in fact, continues to attract Hispanics in droves. In Oregon, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico, Spanish-speaking veterinarians are also in high demand. Oregon’s 11 percent (and booming) Hispanic population means there aren’t enough Spanish-speaking veterinarians to meet the needs of its newish-to-English citizens.

The only difference here in South Florida is that the Spanish speakers are as likely to come from Spain, Venezuela and Colombia as from Mexico or Central America.

That guy in the Maserati next to your Toyota is just as likely to come from Ecuador as from New York. Times have changed … and are still a changin’, especially now that monied exiles from South America’s newly socialist nations are vacating their homelands in droves, pets in tow. And Miami is only one of thousands of destinations they’ll eventually settle in.

It’s not hard to speak the basics, but if stellar customer service is your goal, fluent Spanish is essential—if not from the veterinarian, at least from his or her Spanish-speaking staff.

In our practice we have eight staff members. Three are Cuban, one is Venezuelan, another is Colombian, and another, Honduran. Six out of eight are Hispanic! And we are not unique. The average practice in the greater Miami area shares our enviable stats, and that’s because fewer vets speak the kind of fluent Spanish that’s needed to communicate effectively with the newly minted immigrants and exiles in our area. In other words, we need translators.

I’m one of those lucky veterinarians. Growing up in a Cuban-American household meant I had it easy in this regard. Spanish was a given. Languages come easy when you’re a toddler speaking Spanish with your parents while watching “Sesame Street” in English.

Nonetheless, I’ve had my ups and downs. When I first moved back to Miami from the Northeast (Philly for vet school, Boston for college before that), my Spanish was rusty. Even I, with my native (if American-accented) Spanish needed to learn to speak “vet Spanish.”

At first, I used to look to a staff member with a pleading look whenever I would forget how to say something like “laryngeal paralysis” in Spanish. Finally, I gave in and bought a Spanish medical terminology book and spent a few days figuring it all out. (“Jaundice,” so you know, has a completely counterintuitive translation.)

I mean, just because I might converse comfortably at a dinner party in Costa Rica, it didn’t follow that I knew how to say “spleen.” After all, anyone trained in medical English has no reason to know how to say “dilated cardiomyopathy” in Spanish. Even the “proper” words for urine and stool had eluded me until Barnes and Noble sorted me out.

In general, extrapolations from the Latin roots are helpful, and even “Spanglish” can be acceptable, but if you can’t name every organ in the body, its basic functions and major diseases, you need a full-time translator here in South Florida—and increasingly, in Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, California ...

As potentially stressful as practicing in two languages can be, the obvious corollary also holds: If you speak Spanish, you’ll almost certainly provide better service to your clients, which in turn translates into better care for your patients.

What’s more, as I often counsel my new Spanish language-reluctant Anglo counterparts, we stand to draw a wider clientele than the nonbilinguals in our profession. Gravy! That alone would seem to be worth the cost of Rosetta Stone’s Spanish module (which I highly recommend to anyone who will listen).

Because while, on average, most Hispanics have taken longer to get as pet-addled as their English-speaking counterparts, the pets-as-family trend is on the serious uptick among Hispanic households in the U.S.

No longer is the Hispanic family next door so willing to keep exclusively intact backyard dogs and free-roaming cats, as the stereotype holds. Case in point: Here in Miami, Hispanic pets get hip replacements every bit as often as non-Hispanic pets.

Indeed, it was a recent experience in the rapidly expanding arena of Hispanic pet care that convinced me that perhaps my Spanish medicalese would not be enough. Now that the Hispanic conception of petdom includes backyard hens and small hoofstock, too, I’m finding that the increased willingness to pay for care of livestocky pets means I get to learn lots of new Spanish terms. How to say “prolapsed oviduct” in Spanish? Hmmm ...

Yes, regardless of industry or type of practice, being able to get past that pesky verbal barrier with our clients is priceless, which is why I just broke down and bought yet another book: “Spanish for Veterinarians.” With this one I’ve even learned to say “capon” in Spanish (not that I’ll likely need to). Still, it’s good to know I have options, right? 

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, is a mixed-animal practioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at PetMD.com/blogs/FullyVetted.

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