EMS Language Barrier Stories on Reddit


Reddit provides a forum for organizing a variety of topics, which in turn, makes it easier for the general public to stumble upon these things. Don’t believe me?  I invite you to type the topic of your choice into the subreddit search bar and see if anything pops up. Chances are they’ve got multiple forums where people are discussing the exact topic (or at least something really close to) what you were looking for.

If you didn’t think Emergency Medical Service technicians were active on Reddit, you are mistaken.

Reddit user jlobisser posted into the EMS subreddit the question, “Anyone have any good language barrier stories?”  followed by quite a few responses from other EMS professionals. Looking back on these stories they are often times quite humorous, but in the moment it was most likely an extremely frustrating and sometimes alarming situation. Our 1st Minute app helps prevent situations like these especially when it comes to emergency medical incidents.

You can view all the stories here. We’ve chosen a few stories that stood out and listed them below:

jlobisser shared his own language barrier story after posing the original question to the group:

Just found out that one of my old partners has been saying “no se muerte” (roughly translates to “no death”) instead of no se mueven” (do not move) prior to starting IVs on his spanish speaking patients. I nearly died laughing.

werekoala writes:

So we get a wreck, minor injuries, there’s this old brown lady with black hair standing by the car. I go over, start talking to her, she stares at me blankly.

“She doesn’t speak English” shouts a bystander.

Sweet, time to try out my half-assed gringo Spanish I’ve been studying! “Hola, soy paramedico, dolor?” You know, real rough. She’s still staring at me blankly, so I basically shout it at her.

About that time, the same bystander calls out, “She’s from Laos”.

Duh… there are more than two languages! I was so excited to use my Spanish I just assumed that if you’re brown and don’t speak English, you MUST speak Spanish! I didn’t even get the right continent.

magnalbatross wrote:

Not so much barrier as overcoming a barrier.

I had a patient, spoke mostly Russian, very broken English. Drunk off his ass, no complaints, just too much to drink at home and the family called. The patient was the characteristic grouchy I-don’t-need-to-go-anywhere and the cops did their characteristic go-with-them-or-come-with-us.

Anyway, my FT day job is public school K-5 general music, and as part of the curriculum, I teach the kids a couple of songs in Russian.

So between monitoring, we spent half of the transport singing Russian children’s songs together. We spent the second half of the transport attempting to talk about Russian classical and American Jazz composers. He loved everyone except Tchaikovsky, because “Tchaikovsky was the gay.”

And that’s how I turned a grumpy Russian inebriate into a very, very happy Russian inebriate.

Another wrote:

65 YOF (year-old female) complaining of chest pain on a bus pulled over on the side of the highway. Well, the bus was a tour bus coming back from a casino full of vietnamese women. Not one spoke English; the bus driver called it in. Picked her up, ran a 12 lead that came back normal, transported her to the hospital (all the while during our communication with her, she was not able to speak a word of English), and transferred care. The nurse handed her a specimen cup to urinate in and pointed to the bathroom. While the patient was in the bathroom the nurse told another nurse to find a translator that spoke “asian”- I am from a very diverse area but currently live and work in redneck America. I found this quite funny. The patient came out of the bathroom about two minutes later with the specimen cup, open, and a 6 inch log of shit protruding from it. My partner and I died of laughter and the nurse was not happy.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) – an asian lady handed a nurse a log of poop due to a language barrier.

Fortunately, none of these were extremely life-threatening. They highlight the language barrier that is becoming more prevalent in large cities and in rural America.  Many EMS departments have access to a language line (over-the-phone interpreter), but first responders don’t like the delay and dropped calls they encounter with it.  The next best option is to try and translate on your own or guess based on gestures, which leads to some humorous outcomes as these stories attest to.

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