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Culture of caring: Health care providers reach out to immigrants


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Navigating the medical system for treatment of an injury or sickness can be confusing.

For the growing Burmese population on the southside, receiving proper care can be absolutely baffling. They might not speak English, aren’t used to going to specialists such as an eye doctor or dentist, or don’t trust outsiders giving them advice.

In those situations, Maung Shane steps forward to be their guide.

Shane is a medical advocate specifically assigned to help Burmese refugees who need treatment at Franciscan St. Francis Health-Indianapolis. He speaks their language, understands the culture and social situation they’ve come from and can relate to their confusion and intimidation.

He is part of a wider effort in the medical community to connect with immigrant populations and make sure they receive the best care possible.

“I’m their confidant. I put on a lot of different shoes because it’s not just one thing they need,” Shane said. “I want to help any way I can, whether that’s in the hospital or in the community.”

The Burmese population in the Indianapolis area is growing fast, Shane said. About 10,000 Burmese or Chin refugees live in the region, and Indiana has granted permission for 1,300 more to settle in the state this year.

Hispanics increased more than 270 percent from 2000 to 2012, according to the Census Bureau.

For patients who walk into the lobby of Community Hospital South, signs written in both English and Spanish inform people that interpreters are available for them. The hospital has Spanish-speaking translators on staff, who can work one-on-one between a patient and their doctor.

But with an increasing number of people speaking languages from all over the world, additional services have been added, said Deborah Whitfield, director of network diversity for Community Health Network.

“We want to be inclusive to all the communities we serve. The demographics are changing in America, and they’re changing in different locations,” she said. “As people come into the facilities and seeking medical attention, we want to make sure they get that information in the language they’d speak in their own homes.”

The growing Burmese population on the southside motivated hospital officials to add an interpreter of the Chin, Karen and Kachin dialects.

Admissions employees have a series of cards with different languages written on them, so patients only have to point to a particular word to let doctors and nurses know how to communicate with them.

‘We appreciate who they are’

The hospital also employs a telephone-based translation program. Health officials can call into the translation number, identify one of 150 languages, and a translator is placed on the three-way line. Patient and doctor can then speak through the interpreter.

“It makes them feel that we appreciate who they are and take them serious that we want to communicate with them,” Whitfield said.

Shane can relate to what it was like not being able to communicate with the world around him.

He grew up in the small rural town of Patheingyi, near the northern town of Mandalay in Burma. He remembers having electricity every other day and his house lacking indoor plumbing.

Many of the patients that he deals with lived in similar ways.

Shane and his family moved to Brownsburg in 1996 when he was 13. When they arrived, about five other Burmese families lived in the area.

His mother came to the country first, working as a cook at an Asian buffet restaurant. A former physician in her home country, she sacrificed greatly to do what was best for her children. The Shanes settled in California initially before moving to Indiana.

“It was tough for us at first because we didn’t speak any English,” Shane said.

He remembers that feeling every day when he deals with the patients who come to Franciscan St. Francis.

Shane graduated from Brownsburg High School in 2002, earned a nursing degree at Ivy Tech Community College and started working in the medical field.

He was inspired by his mother, who disobeyed martial law to treat wounded civilians during the Burmese uprising in the late 1980s.

‘A familiar face’

“I was 6 years old at the time and could see my mom operating by candlelight by herself,” Shane said. “From there, my mom took so much risk to help people, and that’s the same altruism I want to help with.”

Shane works in the integrated case management department at Franciscan St. Francis alongside social workers and other case managers. But his role is different from his colleagues. He does little social work; rather, he is dedicated to dealing directly with Burmese patients who come the the hospital.

Shane helps patients read forms and connect with their doctors or serves as a financial counselor for immigrant families who are unfamiliar with the costs of living in the U.S.

Many of his patients are women with young children, so he makes sure that the family has a car seat and a crib. If they don’t, he can connect them with a social worker who can get those items for them.

After receiving treatment at the hospital, he follows up to make sure they are getting the correct care. He’ll make home visits to make sure the environment is safe following a medical procedure.

Building that trust helps ease communication, Shane said.

“They’re more likely to open up to me,” he said. “If they have a serious illness, they may not want to open up to anybody. But if you have a familiar setting, a familiar face, that helps make everything easier.”

Franciscan St. Francis also translates its patients rights documents into Arabic, Punjabi, Spanish and Vietnamese. A telephone-based system, My Accessible Real-Time Trusted Interpreter, can provide an instant interpreter in more than 150 languages.

Each of the features is meant to increase the comfort levels of the patients at a time when they might be scared and confused.

“It’s incredible to walk in and start speaking to them, and their eyes light up because I said something in their language,” Shane said.

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