Interpreter, Translator, Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges

Rafael Mendez sees his job as providing all patients and families with equal opportunities to quality healthcare. He does that by listening, teaching, and making communication accessible to all.

There’s a story about a patient who had diabetes. She had been working diligently to follow the guidelines of her dietitian. And yet, her condition wasn’t improving. She explained repeatedly that she had stayed within recommendations – cutting her starch intake. She had cut back to three tortillas a day – which should have reduced her carbohydrates significantly.

The dietitian was stumped. The patient was stumped.

Rafael Mendez was there to help with interpretation. As he heard the patient speak he recognized her accent. She wasn’t from Mexico; she was from Central America. 

“The tortillas in Central America are a whole lot bigger than the tortillas in Mexico. They were both talking about tortillas but they were talking about two different tortillas,” said Mendez. The revelation was all in a day’s work for Mendez, who has worked at IU Health since 2012. He started his career in medical interpretation working in California. In 1999 he moved to Indiana and worked for a time with the Hispanic Center helping families secure special assistance with utilities and housing. He also helped formalize a program that connected Spanish-speaking residents with language services and employment. He continued his work with the Indianapolis Public Library, designing and implementing programming and services for the growing immigrant population. At IU Health, Mendez is one of several interpreters/translators working with patients, families, and caregivers at Riley, Methodist and University Hospitals. He also works at the outlying clinics.

His days range from speaking with a mother in labor and delivery, to parents of a child in the cancer unit.

“There’s a lot of parent care/education, end-of-life and doctor updates that we are called for,” said Mendez. “We also do a lot of mental and behavioral health working with chaplains, and social workers. We even work with human resources sometimes when they are hiring staff.

“We don’t have chaplains, nutritionist or social workers that speak Spanish so to offer equal access to patients is so important. For me it is very motivating. When a chaplain goes into an English-speaking room, the service is so much more in depth, so meaningful. I feel like I can help create that feeling for Spanish-speaking patients.”

As he talks to Nallely Lopez Rivas, the mother of patient Brittany Midence Lopez, Mendez is animated and consoling. He wants to be sure she understands not only conditions but also pending treatments. He wants to give her assurance.

“It’s so important that we break down language barriers and make sure they know we are here for them,” said Mendez. “I think the thing I like best about my job is that

I can see results of what I do right away. There’s a sense of accomplishment that you are part of a team that is trying to give the best outcomes to patients and families.”

More about Mendez:

  • He is from El Salvador. His father died when he was young and his mother made her way to the United States seeking better opportunities for her family. She left Mendez and his two siblings with family and returned for them six years later. The family moved to Oakland, Calif. where Mendez attended Oakland public schools and then enrolled at UC Berkley. “Mom was smart in the sense she knew there were no opportunities in El Salvador.  She was brave. She not only had to make the trip to the United States, she had to leave behind the people she loved, and she also came to a place where she didn’t know anyone. She didn’t know the country and she didn’t know the language.”
  • Mendez is the father of five children ages 6 to 20. He has been married for 12 years to his wife Dulce.
  • He likes playing soccer and reading and learning about different cultures.

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email