American Sign Language medical interpreter eases care
Imagine going in for a medical procedure and not being able to hear what the provider is saying.
That’s the challenge Deaf and hard of hearing patients face routinely. They may need to face away from the provider for a procedure and not understand the instructions. Or they may be uncomfortable or nervous and not be able to explain how they’re feeling.
That’s where Lariisa McClung comes in.
Whether she’s lying on the floor underneath patients positioned on their stomachs with their head in a face cradle or crouching next to a large piece of medical equipment, Lariisa is accustomed to contorting herself in all sorts of unusual positions to do her job.
For the American Sign Language (ASL) medical interpreter based at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, it’s all in a day’s work.
“It’s common when a patient is having a lumbar puncture or a spinal nerve block that they have to sit on an examination table or bed and round their back, staring at the floor,” she said. “I get on the floor in their line of sight to make sure they maintain their curved posture.”
Lariisa always has to consider sight lines. She often has to squeeze around a procedure table or stand above patients so they can see her signing. When patients are anxious, she’ll interpret instructions on how to breathe and relax.
Her support helps patients “have agency,” Lariisa said.
“They can say things like, ‘Give me a minute’ and feel more in control of a situation when they’re uncomfortable or when they feel like things are being done to them rather than with them,” she said.
Lariisa once held a patient’s hand during cataract surgery. If the man was uncomfortable during the procedure, he could spell “pain” into Lariisa’s hand, and she could relay the message to the eye surgeon. She then signed “yes” into the patient’s palm to assure him that the surgeon got the message.
Lariisa is one of four ASL interpreters at UCHealth and one of two based in the central region at the Anschutz Medical Campus. The other two work in UCHealth’s southern and northern regions. Lariisa has worked at UCHealth for the past four years and also has served as an ASL interpreter in various non-medical professions for more than 35 years.
UCHealth Manager of Health Literacy, Monique McCollum, praises Lariisa’s dedication.
“It’s scary enough to be in the hospital, but to have no idea what’s going on must be terrifying,” McCollum said. “We all need to have the opportunity to understand and ask questions about our care, and Lariisa and her teammates are the bridge to making that happen.”
It’s rare for hospitals to have ASL medical interpreters on staff. Many rely on either agency interpreters or video interpreters through iPads. But both have limitations. For example, iPads occasionally can have connectivity problems and can only be moved up and down or tilted forward to back, which limits their use with patients who are in different positions.
These limitations are one reason more Deaf and hard of hearing patients are seeking care at UCHealth.
“The more interpreters we provide, the more patients come here, which is a good thing and keeps us very busy. But we’re hoping to expand,” Lariisa said.
Her path to becoming an ASL interpreter was an unusual one. Her first passion was acting, and while living in Texas, she waitressed and “waited for my agent to call.”
Eventually, Lariisa came to realize she “didn’t want to be 80 with no money in the bank and still be waiting tables and waiting for my agent to call.” So, she considered a few different careers, landing upon sign-language interpreting. Continuing to waitress six days a week, she took community college classes five days a week.
“I learned I had a knack for it — which is good, because I wasn’t getting any sleep!”
Helping patients feel comfortable in challenging situations is what she values the most, and they in turn are grateful to her.
“I met a patient for the first time at his eye appointment yesterday, and he was so appreciative of having an in-person interpreter, he gave me a big hug and kiss on the cheek and said, ‘I hope I see you next time.’”