Maribelle Hidalgo

Dec. 21, 2020
Maribelle Hidalgo helped COVID-19 patients who struggled with technology. Photo by Robert Allen, UCHealth.

Interpreter comforts COVID-19 patients face-to-face

When a surge of patients with COVID-19 first arrived at UCHealth Greeley Hospital, video calls via digital tablet replaced bedside interpreters for those with limited English proficiency.

But when some patients struggled, medical interpreter Maribelle Hidalgo stepped in to help.

“In the emergency department, there was an elderly patient who was COVID-19 positive,” she said. “The interpreter on wheels (IOW) just wasn’t working for the patient. He was hard of hearing, elderly, and the technology wasn’t a good fit for him. I went in in that situation, donned the PPE, and I interpreted.”

Other times, the respirators doctors or nurses wore over their faces muffled their voices to the point they were indecipherable to the interpreter listening through the tablet’s microphone.

“They couldn’t make out what the nurse was saying,” Hidalgo said. “So, I went into the patient’s room in that situation.”

Erica Gallagher, manager of language services for the UCHealth Northern Colorado Region, said Hidalgo was one of the first interpreters in the region to enter the room of a patient with COVID-19.

“She’s willing to go do whatever she needs to do for our patients,” Gallagher said. “I always think of her as being courageous. And she has courage to speak up if something’s not right.”

Gallagher said that COVID-19 patients, quarantined and with visitor restrictions, already are susceptible to loneliness.

“So take it to the next level of not being able to speak the same language” as their caregivers, she said. “Maribelle is acutely sensitive to those needs.”

Hidalgo, who interprets between Spanish and English, said the “hardest part” of working during the pandemic was when interpreters weren’t able to enter the rooms.

“It makes the communication so much easier, having that face-to-face, in-person contact,” she said. “It makes them feel more at ease and reduces their anxiety level.”

Greeley’s population includes about 39% of residents who are Hispanic or Latino, and 26% of households include a language other than English spoken at home, according to U.S. Census data.

At Greeley Hospital, bedside tablets and the IOW are readily available and assist many patients, connecting them with interpreters who speak Spanish, Rohingya, Somali, Arabic and many other languages.

Hidalgo said the in-person services are prioritized for people for whom the technology alone isn’t sufficient. Interpreters also help give updates on patients for family members with limited English proficiency. Hidalgo said one the most difficult moments during the pandemic was during a care conference when she let a wife know that her husband was going to die.

“That was extremely tough,” Hidalgo said. “But I’m just thankful that I was able to be there for the family during that difficult time.”

Hidalgo has been with UCHealth for about five years, including about three years with UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland. She joined Greeley Hospital in May of 2019.

A University of Northern Colorado graduate with a business degree, she previously worked as a claims adjuster for an insurance company.

She would sometimes use a language line service through a phone company to communicate with clients and, one day, called the operator asking how to become an interpreter. As she gained experience, she “fell in love with medical interpreting” and became certified through the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters.

“Without question, Maribelle Hidalgo is one of the most amazing people that works here on so many levels,” said Mark Culloton, director of hospitality services with Greeley Hospital. “Her work ethic is second-to-none and just the most compassionate person in her work.”

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About the author

Robert Allen loves meeting new people and learning their stories, and he's continually inspired by the patients, staff and providers he meets at UCHealth.

A journalist for 12 years, he joined UCHealth after reporting and editing at the Detroit Free Press. He is the author of Fading Ads of Detroit, a book exploring connections between classic Detroit brands — from Carhartt to Mac-O-Lac Paints to the Detroit Tigers — found on ghost signs and the personal histories of Detroit residents. He previously reported for the Fort Collins Coloradoan, Summit Daily News and Montrose Daily Press.

His outdoor adventures include scrambling summits, hunting powder stashes via snowboard and taking a three-week winter rafting trip down the Grand Canyon. The Oklahoma State University graduate lives in Fort Collins with his wife, Rachel, and their obstinate pug, Darla.