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Blugolds help native Spanish speakers better access health care in the Chippewa Valley

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Erin Fitzgerald (left) and Breida Torres Berumen (right) are working with the Chippewa Valley Free Clinic to translate its handbook into Spanish, helping the area’s fast-growing Spanish-speaking community better access health services. Dr. Elena Casey (center), an assistant professor of languages, Latin American and Latinx studies, is mentoring the Blugolds.

Two Blugolds are making it easier for Spanish-speaking people to access health care in the Chippewa Valley.

During the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s 2020 fall semester, Erin Fitzgerald and Breida Torres Berumen began translating some of the Chippewa Valley Free Clinic’s written materials into Spanish, helping the region’s fast-growing Spanish-speaking population better access medical services in the local community.

“We are providing a resource that can help native Spanish speakers understand the services the clinic provides, which helps them obtain the medical care they need,” says Fitzgerald, a biology major and a health science and Spanish for health professions minor from Woodbury, Minnesota. “This is important to me because I think having access to medical information in a person’s native language is something many of us take for granted and should be available to everyone.”

Breida Torres Berumen knows their translation project will help native Spanish speakers get the health care they need.

Breida Torres Berumen knows their translation project will help native Spanish speakers get the health care they need.

For Torres Berumen, a pre-physician assistant student with a major in biology and a minor in Spanish for health professions, the project was personal.

The UW-Eau Claire junior grew up in Mexico, moving with her family to Maiden Rock when she was in high school.

“When I moved to America in ninth grade, I didn’t speak any English, so I know firsthand the difficulties immigrants experience when trying to complete tasks that would be simple for a native speaker,” Torres Berumen says. “As someone who has needed translation myself, I understand its value and importance, so now that I speak English fluently, it is fitting to help others who are in the same position I once was in.”

Torres Berumen says she also was eager to be part of the translation project because she believes health care should be accessible for everyone, and free translation is a key part of accessibility.

“Making a difference in the community is always rewarding and amazing, but helping a community that I have been a part of and have experienced struggles with makes me very happy and proud of how far I have come in my journey,” Torres Berumen says. “It gives me hope that I can encourage others to do the same.”

Elena Casey

Dr. Elena Casey, an assistant professor of languages, Latin American and Latinx studies, is the project’s faculty mentor.

The two Blugolds collaborated on the project with Dr. Elena Casey, an assistant professor of languages, Latin American and Latinx studies at UW-Eau Claire. With Casey’s guidance, the students ensured their translations were consistent and properly translated for readability and comprehension.

Since the Chippewa Valley Free Clinic serves a significant and growing population of Spanish-speaking patients, translating health documents like the patient handbook — which contains essential information regarding patient eligibility, clinic schedules and services offered — is an essential step toward providing equitable care to the local community, Casey says.

The clinic already had approached her about finding students to translate the handbook, Casey says. So, when Torres Berumen and Fitzgerald pitched the idea of translating health documents into Spanish for their semesterlong creative research project in her Spanish for Health Professions course, Casey connected them with the clinic.

“I knew the students selected for the task would need a strong sense of teamwork, self-motivation and advanced linguistic proficiency,” Casey says of finding students to assist the clinic. “Translating as a team requires frequent communication to maintain consistent language and format throughout the translated text. And working with authentic health care resources requires advanced linguistic capabilities in order to convert English grammatical structures and specialized vocabulary into Spanish.

“Breida and Erin demonstrated all of these skills in our course interactions, which made me confident that this project would be a good fit for their abilities as well as their interests.”

Casey says she was impressed by the Blugolds’ work on the project, as well as their willingness to take on the project during such a challenging time.

“I admire Erin and Breida for their initiative and community-mindedness during a time of global hardship,” Casey says, noting that their work is the beginning of what she expects will be a growing collaboration between UW-Eau Claire’s languages department and the Chippewa Valley Free Clinic. “Community engagement projects are testaments to what we can achieve when we recognize the university not as apart from but a part of our local community.”

The project also gave Fitzgerald and Torres Berumen an opportunity to apply their Spanish-language learning to real-life contexts, while also freeing the clinic’s staff and volunteers to focus on other tasks, Casey says.

“The sharing of labor — like translation projects — that doesn’t have to take place in an in-person, physical environment is especially helpful now, as health care centers face personnel and resource shortages nationwide and students face limited internship possibilities due to the pandemic,” Casey says.

Erin Fitzgerald says having real-world experiences with medical translation will help her in her future career in health care.

Erin Fitzgerald says having real-world experiences with medical translation will help her in her future career in health care.

Fitzgerald and Torres Berumen say the opportunity to build their skills and gain real-world experiences with medical translation will help them in their future careers in health care.

It deepened her understanding of the Spanish language and the increasing need for accurate and adequate medical information for Spanish speakers, says Fitzgerald, who fulfilled her service-learning hours through the project.

“This is the first opportunity I have had to attempt a translation that has a purpose,” Fitzgerald says. “I find that very exciting.”

Fitzgerald and Torres Berumen became involved with the project after taking a Spanish course taught by Casey. The class focused on the Spanish language in medical settings and highlighted the challenges that Spanish-speaking patients face when trying to acquire medical care in the United States.

“We learned that the Hispanic community is the third largest ethnic group in Eau Claire and that there is a need for them to be able to access medical resources in Spanish,” Fitzgerald says. “Thankfully, here in Eau Claire, we have a clinic that can provide these services. We hope that native Spanish-speaking patients can access the information we translated so they have a greater chance of receiving proper medical care.”

The timing of the project was especially meaningful because it is critical that the Spanish-speaking community in the Chippewa Valley understand the medical services available to them during the COVID-19 pandemic, the students say.

Torres Berumen says she volunteered for the project because it aligns perfectly with her professional and personal interests.

She came to UW-Eau Claire planning to study nursing but realized that working as a physician assistant is a better fit for her, says Torres Berumen, noting that her Spanish in health care minor will help her be even more effective when working in the medical field.

“Health care has always been an interest of mine because I enjoy interacting with people and helping them feel better in general,” Torres Berumen says. “Science has always been my favorite subject, especially anatomy and physiology and anything that has to do with the human body.

“When I first came to UW-Eau Claire, I thought I should get a Spanish minor because I was already fluent in it. I soon realized that it has so much relevance to the medical field; it will allow me to give better care to a larger population of people.”

Fitzgerald also brought a passion for the Spanish language and health care with her to college, crediting her middle and high school Spanish teachers with helping her discover her love for the language.

“What started as a requirement quickly became something I really enjoyed,” Fitzgerald says of studying Spanish. “While I do not consider myself fluent, my goal is that one day I will be.”

Her interest in how health care and languages intersect began in high school when she traveled to Ecuador on a mission trip, Fitzgerald says. During that trip, she used her Spanish language skills to communicate with her hosts and the children they cared for, helping her see the value of speaking another language when working in the medical field.

Fitzgerald says she was pleasantly surprised when she learned that UW-Eau Claire offers a Spanish for health professions minor since she wants to combine the two academic areas in her future career.

UW-Eau Claire’s reputation for encouraging students to engage with the community and the world is among the reasons that Fitzgerald became a Blugold, she says. The translation project is exactly the kind of opportunity she’d hoped to find as a college student, she says.

“I think it is one thing to participate in academics and ‘live the student life,’ but it is another thing to use the skills we learn from our academics in real-world settings,” Fitzgerald says. “It is easy to get caught up in the hustle of doing assignments to get grades, so it can be hard to step back to see what the courses really are trying to teach us.

“Participating in this project helped me refocus on why I am taking my courses and what I want to gain from them.”

Torres Berumen agrees, noting that having opportunities to be part of the greater Eau Claire community is an important part of the college experience.

“I think a large part of the college experience is exposing yourself to different cultures and viewpoints, and it’s impossible to do that without immersing yourself in the community,” Torres Berumen says. “The university campus community is wonderful, but it is a small part of the Eau Claire community.”

Still, Torres Berumen says she does value the many experiences she also has found on campus, which have helped her grow as a person and have provided opportunities to give back to others.

For example, Torres Berumen has been a tutor for biology and chemistry classes through UW-Eau Claire’s Blugold Beginnings program.

She also participated in the 2019 Civil Rights Pilgrimage, which she says helped her better understand the past injustices toward minority communities in the United States, specifically African Americans.

“A lot of progress was made during the civil rights movement, but a lot of these problems still persist in America and affect minority communities,” Torres Berumen says. “I was born and raised in Mexico, so I think I bring a unique perspective to Eau Claire as a first-generation immigrant.”