Health in translation

Vinh Tran is a Canberra-born Vietnamese-Australian, currently working as a junior doctor at Canberra Hospital in Australia.


 © Abeir Soukieh, 2017

After leaving Vietnam during difficult times, my parents arrived in Australia as refugees.  My parents were strict during my younger years, but raised my brother and me in a very loving environment.

As a part of our up-bringing there was one thing, in particular, that they would never budge on and that was that my brother and I use the correct terminology when talking to and referring to our elders.  At first, I couldn’t understand why I had to use unique terms like ‘Co’ or ‘Bac’.  I’d wonder why I couldn’t just call them by their first names like everyone else around me seemed to be doing.  It was only when I was around 8 years old that I finally realised that in Vietnamese culture, terms like ‘Co’ and ‘Bac’ were used to show respect to elders, which is a hugely important aspect of the culture.

Fast-forward 20 years from my 8-year-old realisation.  I’m now 28 years old and in my 2nd year of medical school.  It’s been a tough two years filled with stress and sleepless nights, but extremely rewarding.  This story comes out of my most recent semester.  After being taught all the necessary theory, it was time to step into the real medical world… the hospital.  As second year medical students, however, we have neither enough knowledge nor experience to treat patients, and so I often think of medical students as plankton in the big sea; we are just there to make the hospital look nice.

For my first clinical rotation I was in the Renal Department, which surprisingly had a lot of Vietnamese patients who could not speak English very well.  Which meant, finally, it was my time to shine.  I decided to step up and become the English-Vietnamese translator my team needed.

After meeting several patients on our ward rounds, we came to an elderly Vietnamese woman who needed to have her stool and urine checked for unusual bacteria.  As she was unable to speak English, the consultant asked me to tell her that she had to “move her bowels” and “urinate” in separate containers so that the pathology lab could obtain fresh samples.

It was at this point that I began to wish that I had shut my trap about being anyone’s translator and just taken my place as another piece of boring plankton.  The reason for this is that (and I refrained from admitting it to you all) my Vietnamese vocabulary is limited…  I didn’t know the formal words for “move your bowels” or “urinate” in Vietnamese.  In fact, I only knew ‘thug’ terminology for such actions, terms much closer to ‘dump’ and ‘piss’.

I suddenly thought back to the emphasis my parents had always put on being respectful to elders, and was pretty certain that using words like ‘dump’ and ‘piss’ with elders was one way to get you killed.  I thought to myself, do I risk trying to use formal Vietnamese words that she will not understand, or do I use my ‘thug’ Vietnamese, which will ensure that she will do the correct things so that she can get better quicker?

After careful contemplation, I decided to stick to the latter…

So, I introduced myself…

My heart racing at 100 bpm…

And I told this 70-year old patient that she needed to “take a dump in one jar and piss in the other.”

And then, I ran for my life…

Ultimately, she got better and I was able to live another day.

After my several placements this semester, what have I learned?  I have learnt that I’ll eventually become a doctor that utilises “Western” biomedicine.  At the same time, I’m Australian with an up-bringing that’s been strongly influenced by “Eastern” Vietnamese values.  I plan to combine both aspects to become a complete doctor: a doctor who will utilise all the skills he possesses to treat his patients effectively… even if that means asking a 70-year old woman to take a dump and piss in a jar.

 © Vinh Tran, 2017