Vicarious Trauma Live Show, Q&A

Professional medical interpreters serve as a voice for patients, enabling meaningful communication for patients and clinicians through joyful events, such as the birth of a healthy baby or a successful surgery. These same professionals have the duty of interpreting during stressful encounters as well, which over time can result in vicarious trauma.

“Much like how positive, inspiring and joyful experiences can influence us even when we don't experience them directly, traumatic and disturbing events can also leave a mark,” said Ursula, a Spanish interpreter and an instructional designer for training and development department at AMN Healthcare Language Services, during a recent live show on the topic.

“Vicarious trauma typically starts with secondary traumatic stress (STS), which is the emotional distress that results when an individual hears about the first-hand trauma experiences of another person, often causing anxiety, depression and hypervigilance,” Ursula continued. “Over time, after repeated exposure to secondary traumatic stress, vicarious trauma sets in.”

Repeated exposure takes an emotional and psychological toll on professionals in caregiving and support roles, including medical interpreters. It may combine with burnout, lack of support or isolation and can lead to emotional exhaustion, decreased ability to feel empathy or compassion, and lingering feelings of anger, sadness or hopelessness, Ursula explained.

Experiencing vicarious trauma

Elisa, a Portuguese interpreter with AMN Healthcare for the last eight years, reported that she has experienced vicarious trauma a few times.

“It doesn't happen often, but when it happens, you don't forget that it happened,” Elisa said.

She recalled an incident in an emergency room of a pediatric hospital and clinicians caring for a child with a serious health issue. No one knew if the youngster would survive or not or what deficits the child would have if he survived.  “When I joined the session, it was a life-and-death issue, and I was not prepared for the agony of the parents and what I witnessed,” Elisa said. “The effect that it had on me was a mix of anxiety, fear, pain drawn from some personal experiences that I've had.”

Providers usually give context, but often interpreters must jump in immediately.

“I wasn't prepared for how I reacted,” Elisa said. “Once the session ended, I found myself extremely sad, in tears, feeling confused.”

While the experience was difficult for her, she found it helped her build resilience, wisdom, and better coping skills. Elisa will focus on her role and how skillful interpretation changes lives.

After the fact, “I could help myself use that experience to learn something,” Elisa said. “I could find ways to decompress.”

Ursula, who has worked as a Spanish interpreter and builds interpreter training programs, also reported episodes of vicarious trauma. She described feeling discouraged and frustrated. She encouraged interpreters to be alert to symptoms, identify what is happening and find coping strategies.  

Dealing with vicarious trauma

For Ursula, her coping strategies include decompressing after a difficult interpreting session, being attuned to her body, taking time for herself and performing breath work exercises. The risks of vicarious trauma can affect one’s ability to interpret accurately, to provide efficient access to communication, she said.

“Doing something about it, taking it in consideration and having a plan to be prepared, but also reduce the risks of vicarious trauma, is essential for healthcare interpreters,” said Ursula, who produces materials to help medical interpreters pre-empt vicarious trauma.

We offer help to interpreters experiencing vicarious trauma, said Kristen B., a talent acquisition manager with AMN Healthcare Language Services. Those support services include a team that is always available to medical interpreters needing to talk and we offer an employee assistance program.

“The company does take it seriously,” said Elisa, adding that AMN Healthcare Language Services allows its medical interpreters subjected to a traumatic situation to take a few minutes to regain their composure before returning to work. That may include stepping outside, simply changing the geography to something pleasant, and then debriefing with a colleague or team lead.

“Here at AMN, we really pride ourselves on the fact that we have this network,” Kristen said.

Medical interpreters will have different triggers and may develop different coping strategies.

Kristen reminds medical interpreters that they help someone just by being present and serving as a bridge to communication even if the news shared is sad.

“Just by enabling them to hear that news, you helped them to move on or get treatment or whatever the case may be,” Kristen said.

View the full show recording for more details and tips to deal with traumatic situations in your interpreting sessions.

Ready to learn more about opportunities in medical interpreting? AMN Healthcare Language Services is hiring in the United States, Mexico and Costa Rica.

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