A Hindi Connection

It was a slow Sunday afternoon in the Emergency department.  As part of my training as a resident physician in psychiatry I have to work two months in the emergency department as an ER physician.  If you are familiar with the American TV show ‘ER’, I can tell you that working in the Emergency department in one of the busiest hospitals in Toronto is just as stressful, exciting and exhausting as shown on the popular serial.  As the T-shirts of one the nurses on my shift says, “ER ? You watch it! We live it!”


On this particular shift in the ER, in the middle of an interview with a patient with cramping abdominal pain whose symptoms sounded suspiciously like she had kidney stones, one of the nurses grabbed me and said, “Dr. Pinto, you are needed urgently in the trauma room!”  Making my excuses to the patient, I promptly jetted as fast as I could to the trauma room where I heard the trauma leader, Dr. Brown, yelling at me as I entered the room, ” Dr. Pinto, I hope you speak this man’s language, because I cannot understand a word of what he is saying!”


I looked at the lone stretcher in the room.  On it was a young Indian man, in his early 20s, writhing in pain with a bloody mess of bandages around his right arm. Dr. Brown motioned me to the side of the patient, her voice muffled under the green surgeon’s mask and said, “This young man was in a horrible work related accident.  He has severely injured his right arm.  He does not speak any English.  He is from Punjab in India.  We have no way of communicating with him.  Are you able to speak to him?”


I looked at the young man, whose arm was slowly turning everything in the vicinity into a pool of blood.  His face was contorted in pain and the words coming out of his mouth sounded like Punjabi.  Could I speak to him?  Apart from two or three words of Punjabi that I learned from my Punjabi friends, I couldn’t speak the language for the life of me.  But Punjabi has always sounded somewhat similar to Hindi to my untrained ears, and I could have a half way decent conversation in Hindi because of my penchant for watching Hindi movies. Perhaps the young man could also speak Hindi, I thought in my head.  As Dr. Brown was looking anxiously in my direction and the pool of blood on the floor was getting larger,  the enormity of the situation was weighing in on me.  He needed to be taken to the operating room fast and for the surgeons to operate, they needed to know the extent of the damage to the arm.  Information that could only be communicated by telling the surgeons whether he could move his fingers, feel his forearm, biceps etc.  And since I was the only other person of Indian origin in the ER at the time, apart from the patient, I might be able to help out the surgical trauma team with this information.


They only knew his name, Jeet. 


“Jeet, kya aap ko hindi maloom hai?”  He turned his head towards me, with eyes that shone bright from hearing words that made sense to him after so long.  “Haan,” he responded, “Bahut dard ho raha hai haath mein.”  He told me that that he couldn’t feel his fingers, he could only feel pain in his upper arm?.he was speaking very fast and I was struggling to understand what he was saying.  I was faced with the challenges of translation.  Jeet’s hindi was different from the filmi hindi I was used to.  Were there some words of Punjabi in there?  I couldn’t tell.  I couldn’t understand some things he was telling me.  And when the surgeon was asking me to tell him to move his right thumb up.  I couldn’t remember how to say “right” or “thumb” in hindi.  I tried my best in a roundabout way, and there were many times I felt frustrated with my lack of grasp over Hindi.


Half way through the translation between the surgeon, Jeet and I, an Indian looking orthopedic surgeon had joined the team.  He was standing beside me, trying to salvage Jeet’s arm.  When once again I couldn’t follow Jeet properly when he was speaking about the accident, I looked at the Indian orthopedic surgeon whose name tag suggested to me he was of North Indian origin and asked him if maybe he understood what Jeet was saying.  He looked at me and said, “Not a clue” and he went back to wrapping Jeet’s right arm in bandages.


I looked back at Jeet who was continuing to tell his story in pain and in fear of what was going to happen next.  He only needed someone to understand him and if Indian people couldn’t understand what he was saying, one couldn’t expect others to understand what he was saying. 


I muddled through the translation.  The surgeons now knew enough of what they needed to know to go ahead with surgery.  I translated in Hindi to the best of my abilities, the complications of surgery, the chance for amputation, the need to be strong.  He was very brave in his response.  I watched him as they rolled him out from the trauma room to take him to the OR.


The trauma leader thanked me and said that it would have been a nightmare trying to operate not knowing his deficits.  He went on to say that Jeet was “lucky” that I was working in the ER that day and able to translate for him.


I don’t think I have given much second thought to my knowledge of Hindi or Konkani.  My knowledge of both languages is something I have picked up from films or chattering around the home.  But my encounter in the ER with Jeet, reminded me of the languages that I inherit as part of my culture and heritage.  It also made me aware yet again of what a shame it would be for me to lose my languages and the need for me to keep them alive by being connected to that part of the world where my knowledge of even a few words of Hindi can be of so much comfort and help to a young man miles away from home.

Author: Tanya Pinto- Canada