Medical Emergencies and Language Translation

This is the first in a series of stories about emergency medical experiences and language translation. First responders, travelers, and immigrants are sharing the scary, humorous, or dramatic events where the language barrier got in the way of the right treatment at the right time.

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We interviewed a female, age 27 from USA. Here is her story:

Tell us about your experience:

My fiancé is English and we go to England every Christmas, so a couple of years ago we decided to go on to Italy afterward to trace my family history. We visited an extremely small town off the coast of Adriatic Sea where NO ONE speaks English. Neither of us spoke any Italian.

I ended up getting intensely sick and everything that could go wrong did. I couldn’t move, I had a fever, burning eyes, constantly running nose, and couldn’t keep anything down–so basically flu-like symptoms to the extreme. A huge problem was that I didn’t understand my temperature, because I couldn’t easily convert it from Celsius. I must have had at least a 103 F fever though. This made it hard to understand how bad of shape I was in and know what medicines to take. Here I was in this completely gorgeous setting supposed to be on vacation, but it was ruined because I desperately needed something to make me feel better and I couldn’t get it. I couldn’t breathe, I had the sweats, and I slept for a majority of that time. In retrospect, it was probably just the flu but what if it was worse? What if I had been epileptic or asthmatic? Or had been pregnant and not able to take any medicine?

So what did you end up doing to resolve the situation?

I ended up going into this weird pharmacy and attempted to describe my symptoms but to no avail. I remember recognizing some Ricola cough drops so I grabbed those and then basically just bought any over the counter medicine that I may have recognized from here in the States. But I still wasn’t entirely sure what it all was, and it was scary because I didn’t know exactly what or how much of this stuff I was putting in my body. There was the equivalent of an ER in the town that I’m sure housed real doctors, but I didn’t go because it was seemed old and run down. I just wasn’t sure about it.

What were your communication options?

We had very little access to wifi as we were on the road trying to get to this town, and once we arrived it was scarce. At one point we didn’t even have a hotel secured because our plans had changed so much. Imagine roadtripping and arriving at a “podunk” town in Texas that you’ve never heard of, except in Italy. Everyone that is born there stays all of their life and doesn’t learn another language. It didn’t even matter if it was a certain dialect of Italian because they simply knew no English and we knew no Italian. This place was definitely not a tourist destination so there were no other visitors that potentially spoke English either.

On your next trip, would you use an app to assist with medical emergencies like these?

I would be more than happy to pay for an app like that. I know we will go to the same spot again in the future, and I’ve already asked my fiancé to get me Rosetta Stone for Italian. I will be prepared this time!  You just don’t know what’s going to happen and I am not going to take that chance again. So if I’m going to pay for something like RS I would definitely buy the app in preparation for the trip.

What would be the most helpful in the app?

Definitely a  temperature conversion feature, like I said that was one of the biggest problems I encountered.  A picture of the body (like in 1st Minute App) would be the only way to do it and have a way to accurately sort out the other symptoms. And it definitely needs to be able to run without wifi.

Good luck on your next trip!  These emergencies rarely happen but when they do it’s best to not be caught off guard.  The functionalities of 1st Minute App serve as an insurance policy against near-death medical situations while traveling in other countries.

Blog by Anna Gentsch

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