When Deborah Arteaga first learned that Volunteers in Medicine of Southern Nevada (VMSN) needed Spanish interpreters to help the clinic effectively communicate with its patients, she immediately began working on a solution.That was in May 2016, and since that time, she has volunteered more than 1,200 hours as a medical interpreter for VMSN to help address the challenge.
“Since I began interpreting, I have come into contact with patients with serious illnesses that would have been caught earlier had the patients had access to health care,” Arteaga said. “It has fueled my passion to help our Hispanic community receive the best health care possible.”
Arteaga, who is a world languages and cultures professor, recently was recognized for her work in this area with the 2020 Faculty/Staff Community Outreach Award, presented by the UNLV office of community engagement.
In addition to her own work as an interpreter, she also has created resources for other interpreters and volunteers who help Spanish-speaking VMSN patients.
VMSN is a nonprofit health organization that provides high-quality, comprehensive health care to members of the community who are typically low-income and whose jobs don’t include access to health insurance.
Dr. Florence Jameson, founder of VMSN, initially requested volunteer interpreters to help one day a month at the clinic. Arteaga answered the call by going above and beyond to volunteer two to three times a week.
“Dr. Arteaga embodies the spirit of outreach to the Hispanic community that is so important to UNLV and to our community,” Jameson said in her letter supporting Arteaga’s application for the award. “In short, I cannot think of a more deserving recipient of the office of community engagement Faculty/Staff Community Outreach Award.”
Arteaga’s work didn’t stop at her own volunteerism. She soon began serving as a resource for other volunteer interpreters and created a video to support her colleagues at VMSN. She also incorporated community service into her teaching, which resulted in the creation of Spanish for the Healthcare Professions courses.
Students in the class volunteer their time at VMSN as part of the service component of the class, gaining valuable, real-life experience.
“Through service-learning, students in my Spanish for the Healthcare Professions classes come in direct contact with an under-served population in our community,” said Arteaga. “They see first-hand that good medical care relies on effective bilateral communication with patients, and how the lack of health care has negatively affected the Hispanic community, as many illnesses have gone undetected often with adverse consequences.”
She added that many students from the class have gone on to address this area of need when becoming health care providers themselves.
Currently, Arteaga is working with Joseph Miera, the vice provost of UNLV’s Educational Outreach Division, and Stephanie Borene, a program developer in Educational Outreach, on a certification program, Spanish for Healthcare Professionals, for providers in the community.
Arteaga’s work in this field inspired her to obtain two national certifications related to medical interpreters, making her one of only two doubly-certified health care interpreters with a Ph.D. in the field in the United States.
Jameson said, “Dr. Arteaga's connection with our patients is extraordinary. I have personally seen her hold hands and wipe tears, always displaying great compassion and kindness.”
Among the stories Jameson shared was one that involved a woman who had had a stroke.
“As always, Dr. Arteaga focused solely on the patient, whose speech was not clear,” Jameson said. “She found that she could understand the patient if she concentrated and she spoke directly to her instead of to the accompanying family members. At one point, the patient burst into tears. Dr. Arteaga handed her a Kleenex and asked her what was wrong. The patient replied, ‘You are the only person in a medical setting who has spoken directly to me since my stroke, instead of treating me like a piece of furniture.’”
The UNLV office of community engagement established four universitywide awards in 2016 to recognize campus individuals for their exceptional community engagement in the areas of service-learning, community-based research, faculty/staff community outreach, and student service.