We’re Doing the Best That We Can by
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When I got my dream job at La Clinica de la Raza, right after residency, I alleged that I knew how to speak Spanish.  It wasn’t entirely untrue. The people served were nearly all immigrants from Mexico and Central America and every aspect of the clinic was bilingual, which was remarkable.  My skills inevitably improved over time, even to the point where I eventually felt tongue-tied switching back to English.

On my first day, it was show time. I nervously knocked on the door and entered to find a pleasant young man who listened patiently as I introduced myself in halting Spanish and asked what had brought him to the clinic. 

But on my first day, it was show time. I nervously knocked on the door and entered to find a pleasant young man who listened patiently as I introduced myself in halting Spanish and asked what had brought him to the clinic.  Then he blandly looked back and said, “I don’t speak Spanish.”  Born and raised in California.  Sheesh.

I discovered that quite a few people knew at least as much English as I did Spanish, and we would do a kind of dance to figure out which language was mutually easiest.  It was embarrassing when I introduced myself (“Buenos dias, soy la doctora Hendry”) and got the response “No hablo Ingles”.  We would have to continue before they realized I wasn’t actually speaking English (perhaps it wasn’t just poor Spanish, but my name sounded odd and I look very northern European) and a surprised smile usually followed.  Sometimes it took a while–each of us wanted to show off our ability to speak in the non-native tongue–before someone finally gave in.

At least my name didn’t have some other connotation–we had a Dr. Mahl (“mal” = “”bad”), and a Dr. Acha (“hacha” = “hatchet”), as well as the amusing English one of Dr. Payne (pain).  But poor hapless Dr. Sirrott tried to make his name easier to pronounce by saying it in a Spanish accent, which came out as Dr. Sir-roh-tay.  It turned out that sounded like “cerrote”, which might construe a big hill, but was a local idiom for a big pile of shit.  Fortunately, he laughed louder than anyone when he finally found out.

There were a few other gems that got passed around.  Our earnest nutritionist found out years after diligently asking her clients to step on the “vesicula” to be weighed at each visit, that the word was actually “bascula”.  Her lovely clients had all dutifully stepped on the scale, despite the fact that they had been requested to step on a gall bladder.

And the wonderful obstetrician gynecologist was mortified to discover that all the times she had requested her patients to put their feet in the stirrups (estribos), she had actually used the word “estrellas”.  Put your feet in the stars.  They must have wondered, but complied, and It did make some metaphorical sense—feet way up for a pelvic exam.

We picked up patterns of speech from the patients, many of whom had only a few years of schooling, and one day a highly educated patient gently corrected me– “mucho mas major” (much more better) wasn’t really proper Spanish.  I appreciated that, because most of the time the patients were too polite to tell us when we misspoke.

I had started to learn the language several years earlier, when I was a medical student working in a United Farmworkers’ clinic in Calexico, right on the border of California and Mexico.  My favourite method was to read a comic book, write down the first fifty words I didn’t know, try to memorize them, and repeat the next day.  I had found Ruiz’s “Los Agachados” (literally, “the bent-over”, or “downtrodden”), which featured a couple of wisecracking Mexican campesinos (rural folk) who made fun of the local officials of the PRI (the long-in-the-tooth Institutional Revolutionary Party).  There was a lot of slang that confused me (“p’os” for “pues” –meaning “and so” or “then”), and the medical assistant snickered when I wondered what “hijo de la pelona” (my dictionary suggested “son of the bald one”?) or “pendejo” meant.  They loosely meant “son of a bitch” and “stupid asshole”.

The clinic cobbled together staff, and one of the volunteer physicians who came in from San Diego did a particularly spectacular job of mangling the Spanish language.  But his heart was large as large as his booming, heavily-accented voice.  As the medical assistant recalled, he listened carefully while a weather-beaten old farmworker complained about the rough skin lesion on his arm, describing it as “esta chingadera”—roughly translatable as “this little fucker”, although he didn’t realize that.  Having learned a new word, when a dignified older woman appeared later with a similar lesion, the physician enthusiastically announced, to her astonishment, “Senora, yo veo que usted tiene una chingadera aqui!”  (I see you have a little fucker here!). Oops.

In the end, I believe we forgave each other our missteps.  Speaking the same language, even a few words, creates a trust that transforms medical care. We were all doing our best, and we understood the common language of good intentions.


Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry

Characterizations: been there, funny, moving, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Your description of the vernacular for your colleagues’ names is really funny, Khati. And doing the language dance sounds interesting. I believe you are correct, just speaking a few words in one’s native tongue goes a long way toward establishing trust and respect. The rest will follow. Wonder story.

  2. Suzy says:

    Khati, how great that you went to work at the Clinica de la Raza right after your residency. I’m sure there were more lucrative job offers. And that you plunged right in speaking Spanish as well as you could. How funny that your first patient turned out not to speak Spanish at all. You share quite a catalogue of mistakes – my favorite is asking patients to step on a gall bladder – but everyone learned, medical professionals and patients alike, and you did so much good for your patients. As you say, you were all doing your best, and the community benefited from it.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      The catalogue of mistakes is of course far larger than I detailed, but those were the examples that stuck as particularly cringeworthy. Back in 1980 we were small—barely 100 employees in all, and there was much comraderie. Now the organization is enormous with well over 1,000 employees scattered in scores of sites with many more languages, which has doubtless spurred more stories of language gone wrong.

  3. Marian says:

    Trying is the key word, Khati, as you so humorously relate. Love the slang. French also has a few words, that if mispronounced, can lead to small disasters, but intent and a good heart can make up for language lapses.

  4. John Shutkin says:

    What a wonderful, delightful story, Khati, and I love all the anedotes. It reinforced for me what has been stressed in this linguistics course I am streaming by John McWhorter. And that could easily be reduced to “the devil is in the idioms.” That said, what could be a better description of a painful skin lesion that “a little fucker”? I see no need to apologize for such a description.

    And, ultimately, your lovely last paragraph says it all. Thank you for simply doing your best — both in language and health care!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      I am definitely in awe of those who can become truly bilingual—but I think you have to start early and be immersed. As Marian described, even those who can translate to another language often need a native speaker to take it where it sounds “right”. The rest of us do the best we can. And have fun trying most of the time.

  5. Wonderful story Khati, and altho it’s about those funny language slip-ups you describe, your physician’s devotion to your patients – as always – comes through.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    I love your last paragraph, especially the phrase “the common language of good intentions.” Thanks for the funny and heart-warming stories.

  7. Mister Ed says:

    What a great story! My attempts to learn Spanish while working with the farm worker community taught me a lot, but, unfortunately, not a great deal of Spanish. I really like the way you relate the difficulties, mistakes, and the ensuing humor.

  8. Dave Ventre says:

    This story reminded me a bit of my experience the summer I turned eighteen, as basically the only Anglo working in a large warehouse. One of the greatest and most enlightening summers of my life!

    As I quickly learned in France last year, the local idioms for hello, please, excuse me and thank you, and a bit of honest effort, will take you far in a foreign land.


    • Khati Hendry says:

      I’m so glad you provided the link to your story, so I got to read it again. It was terrific the second time as well, and certainly resonated with my own union experiences. I have agree that you learn so much outside of school. Sally had a dizzying array of jobs before getting her law degree–and taxi driver, post office, and restaurant cook were among the most useful for understanding life.

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