COVID Stories: The Impact on Language Professionals – Julie’s Story

By: Cheryl

In 2020, MCIS allocated funds from its Social Benefits Initiative (SBI) to assist community organizations experiencing challenges related to the pandemic. The purpose of this was so these organizations could provide critical information that they would otherwise not have been able to without funding. MCIS’ SBI fund supports free/subsidized interpretation and translation services, such as a direct telephone line for COVID-19 related conversations and the translation of COVID-19 related information. We also interviewed these community organizations, wrote blogs, and posted them on our website as “COVID Stories”.

Then late in 2020, as planning for 2021 was underway, an idea was floated around about continuing the COVID Stories, but from a different perspective. This is when “COVID Stories: The Impact on Language Professionals” was born.

For almost 18 months now, language professionals have been at the frontlines alongside healthcare professionals, settlement workers, social services workers, educators, and many others, providing language services to Non-English or Limited-English Speakers (NES/LES). Language professionals, often seen as having a behind-the-scenes profession, have also had to pivot drastically in how they work, as the majority of in-person meetings were moved to remote meetings. And while their work may have shifted online, some language professionals continue to work in-person, choosing to risk their health so others can have access to critical information. As a result, language professionals are heroes in their own right.

This series of COVID stories is a collaboration between MCIS staff and the kind language professionals who generously allowed us to interview them. The stories will be posted right here on our website on a monthly basis.

Our fourth interview in the series is with Julie who has been an interpreter for five years and joined MCIS right from the beginning. The languages she interprets are Mandarin, Cantonese, and English.

Why did you become a language professional?

Being able to speak two languages is a talent, so why not use it? I used to work in the media, and I have been using my bilingual skills to interview people. I used to write for a local community newspaper; I interviewed people from Chinese groups. I noticed how having the language barrier is a huge problem for many immigrants. Why won’t I just give them a voice? So then, I became a community interpreter. I joined MCIS, and I was given some work to do in the community. Then I realized that there is a big demand for my job. Then I started being very competent. I developed my skills, I was really into medical interpreting, and now that is where I am today.

So do you do a lot of interpreting in hospital settings?

Yes, that is pretty much what I do; it has been my main area for the past four years. Two or three years ago, I was on hospital staff and worked as a staff interpreter. However, that was pre-COVID time, and everything is quite different nowadays.

Has the pandemic changed you as a person?

Personally, I think it has, I believe it has changed a lot of people’s lives. Because of the separation between my family and me, like many immigrant parents, they are still trying to come and join me here. The plan was for them to come two years ago, but unfortunately, that was right at the beginning of the pandemic, so they couldn’t come.

I also became more patient, and I have so much free time. I love travelling, it is my passion, but I couldn’t do it. I was trapped here in Toronto, so I just had to develop other hobbies to spend my time. Since I cannot just go overseas, and I can’t go on a flight to go overseas, I started exploring RV life. Since the pandemic began, I have already gone on two RV trips. I did my second RV trip solo. It was just my dog and me, and I am quite proud of that. This is how the pandemic changed me. I am more adventurous because I do not want to be told, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that,” because we have already been told you can’t go here, can’t enter anywhere without wearing masks. There are so many “no’s” in our lives already. So you just have to use whatever you have available to you. So that’s my life now.

Professionally, when I am working in a hospital, I have experienced a lot of life and death situations. Nothing can compare to this, not that I’m seeing people dying, but it’s just that I would experience their emotions at their worst time while they are in the hospital for a couple of weeks. I became very emotional. I didn’t know this about myself. I thought I was very strong already. But seeing people and their loved ones being separated a lot. And I figured something out for myself. I just want to do things that I want to do while I still can. I don’t want it to wait because it can end at any time. I should make it happen as soon as I can.

Have you learned any new skills? Have you learned anything new about yourself?

Playing ukulele and singing! I didn’t know I could sing before, and I started learning the ukulele on my trip because I had a lot of time to myself. So I started recording myself singing, and I had the courage to post my first video of me playing it. It’s really basic because I am a beginner ukulele player and a beginner singer. And then, I just posted a short video online, and I got many responses from my friends. And ever since then, I haven’t stopped playing. You just need to celebrate life. Just celebrate life while you can.

Have you been able to establish a routine to help you keep up with daily responsibilities?

Yeah, I think my situation is slightly different from the people who have to switch their roles from in-person to remote. That switch, for me, is short and easy. I switched from going to in-person assignments to staying at home for only maybe a couple of months. I think this option is also a product of the pandemic because the hospitals were having difficulty finding an in-person interpreter. We used to be able to book interpreters ahead of time, and people would come. But now, it’s because it’s in the hospital. People who have families, like younger children or the elderly are at home, would think twice before accepting an assignment at a hospital. So that’s why the hospitals offer work to whomever can come, almost like a full-time job. It’s not officially a full-time position as it is from time to time. However, it is on-site, and I do work Monday to Friday. So I just took it; I figured that since I don’t have children and I don’t have the elderly at home, I’m currently living with my boyfriend; however, he does visit his family quite often. So when I make my decision, I have to think about them.

I consulted with my boyfriend first about this offer. I asked him, “What do you think?” because I needed to know that he was comfortable with me doing it because of his parents. He just said one thing to me “I thought you were the health care provider already. I see you as the health frontline worker. So do you. Do you see those nurses and doctors think about the same thing? If they don’t have the worries, I don’t think you should have the worries.” I never saw myself as a frontline worker until that day. I took the offer, and luckily they took me in right away. And ever since then, I became a frontline worker.

Definitely. And, they provide you with all the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as well, right?

Yes, but it’s a little bit of a great grey area because of our profession. People don’t really know what an interpreter is and what a medical interpreter does, and I am not considered hospital staff. Sometimes they provide the PPE, but for some other reason, like the vaccine, the hospital staff would be given the vaccine right away, but not me. I was not on the priority list, although I need to go to patients every day. It was a bit of a struggle initially, but we figured it out later on, and I was able to get my vaccine.

Are there activities that you do to remain focused and motivated?

I think it’s the hope that everything will open up and that I will be reunited with my parents soon. I just need to keep my mental and emotional health in check for my boyfriend, dog, family, and friends. I haven’t seen my friends in person. We have Zoom calls and stuff, but we haven’t been able to see each other for a very long time, even the local friends who are still in Toronto. What keeps me motivated is that I am basically preparing for the day when I can do all the things I can’t do at the moment. I’m preparing myself to show them a brand new me and for us to be truly reunited. I want to talk about what I have been talking about to you today. I might show off my ukulele and sing some songs. I think that keeps me going because I am really looking forward to this long-overdue reunion with my friends.

Is there anything that you’re concerned about during these times due to the ongoing pandemic, both short and long-term?

My health, of course, was my first concern. I was really scared when I first started [working] in the hospital; I was super sensitive. The first thing I have to do is take off everything and jump in the shower. I would overthink a lot. I would often think, “What if? What if I got it?” I would be overly sensitive to a little cough and a runny nose, which made everything so stressful. Since I work in the hospital, I have to see COVID patients sometimes. I couldn’t stop having these thoughts if I was infected, but I wasn’t really worried about myself at that point. I was mainly concerned about my boyfriend’s family. I am young, I believe I can recover, but I just can’t afford to have some elderly people infected because of me.

Is there any other support that you wish you had?

MCIS helped me a lot, supported me a lot through this whole pandemic working in the hospital, because they understood how stressed I was in the beginning, because of the vaccine and some of the rules in regards to how interpreters operate within the hospital. Not all staff or patients were familiar with the how we work and how to work with us. MCIS provided me with a lot of help when it came to explaining my role and what I do. I’m very satisfied, very happy with the support I got.

Was there a period at all where you had to do remote work? If so, what was that like?

There was a time, and it wasn’t fun. I live in a condo, and I live with my dog. For a period of time, my boyfriend had to work from home too, and we had to share the space. I would have to explain to my clients when the alarm would go off when they would do the monthly testing. And sometimes, while I’m speaking, I trigger my Google home, and it would start talking to me. There are so many inconveniences when working from home, and so many new things I had to learn. Sometimes my dog would even have some accidents. However, I was very happy that the period was quite short for me. I was able to go to work in-person. I am not a home-type person. I like working with people, although it’s a pandemic. I still have to lie to my parents that I work from home because they’re just super nervous. They don’t want me to go to the hospital. They’re worried about my mental health because they think I have been working from home for over a year now. And I just can’t imagine what it would be like if I had to work from home for that long. I would probably have some mental health problems; it’s challenging.

If you could say or give advice to anyone reading this blog, what would you tell them?

I would say just grab every opportunity. For some people, it’s an opportunity to slow down, to think about what they can do and want. Use this time as an opportunity to find out what you are interested in or what you’re good at. Who knows, maybe you can find something new. So many amazing things can happen. But no matter what happens, it just changes. It’s something new, just grab it and start learning. Learn about yourself. I think we were too busy to slow down to learn ourselves before. Now I think I have had a lot of free time to think about what I want and discover what I can do.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I will just say that having to go through this pandemic at the front line, I’ve seen people struggling, and it makes me emotional sometimes. Things would happen, I would act normal, and I wouldn’t cry or be emotional at work. But once I came home, and my boyfriend would ask me, we would tell each other how the day went. Once I started talking, I would just break down. I would process it, and it would hit me. So what I want to say is that while what we do is a language profession, we’re going through the same kind of emotions as our healthcare providers. I’m proud of my profession. When one day this pandemic ends, I just want to come and confess to my parents. I would say, “I’m really sorry that I lied, but I am very proud of what I do and what I have accomplished. You should be proud of your daughter, too, because I worked the front line.” I hope they can understand.