Interpreter Spotlight: Meet Beth Podber

Mar 3, 2021

Beth Podber is an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter and Interpreter Services Coordinator at NewYork-Presbyterian Queens Hospital. This is the latest in our series of Liberty Language Services Blog posts highlighting the variety of careers available in the field of interpreting, and the variety of professional language specialists who work as interpreters.

How long have you been working as an interpreter?

I’ve been working as a professional interpreter for a little over 8 years.

Why did you choose this profession?

I have always loved languages and watching how people communicate. As a child I was exposed to English, Hebrew, Spanish and American Sign Language.

How did you get started as an ASL interpreter?

I met a Deaf person. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that simple of a path. When I was 13 I broke my leg and landed myself a seat on a handicapped accessible bus. One of the other passengers was a boy who was in a wheelchair. I didn’t realize he was Deaf until I tried to talk to him and was unsuccessful with my voice. For the next few months our daily bus rides to and from school included lessons in American Sign Language for me.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I took a formalized American Sign Language class. At this time I was also working at a physical therapy office planning on going to college for physical therapy. I’d always been intrigued by posters of the body you would find in a doctor’s office, so it just seemed right. My American Sign Language teacher was Deaf and she kept telling me that I was going to be an interpreter. I was stubborn and kept thinking I was going to college for physical therapy. Then one day a Deaf person came in for therapy and my two worlds collided.

How do you prepare for your assignments?

Working in a hospital the assignments are often patients I have worked with throughout multiple disciplines. Preparing for these assignments can be a little easier than if I get a call from the emergency room. For planned appointments I always ask the office what the reason for the patient’s visit is. If it’s a dermatology appointment, I know the patient isn’t going there for a broken bone. I get myself in a specific thought world and ask myself what kind of scenarios can or will come up in that setting.

If the doctor or office can tell me a very specific reason for an appointment, I can always use resources such as the internet to look up information that might come up during the appointment. For emergency requests, I try to do something similar once I know what the patient is coming in for. During the first wave of COVID last year, preparing for assignments entailed making sure I had all the proper PPE to protect myself.

Can you tell us more about your experience during the pandemic?

Overall COVID made communication extremely difficult. At my hospital we were already using Video Remote Interpreter (VRI) devices with both limited English speaking patients and Deaf patients. We use a mix of onsite interpretation and video. During the early COVID surge we relied on these devices as we typically do with our large limited English population. Just about one in two patients prefer to speak a language other than English here in Queens.

As part of American Sign Language there are facial expressions that go with the manual signs. The Deaf community was hit hard, first by COVID and lack of access to interpreters and also the difficulty in communicating with people in masks. It took a little while to source masks with see through windows for patients who use lip reading for communication, but we were able to provide that here. The interpreters would use see-through masks and put the shield over them for protection.

When COVID first hit our hospital, many employees and departments jumped in to help in any way they could. I helped accept donations that poured in from our incredible community here in Queens. The first few weeks we had community members calling and coming in with all types of protective equipment. We had donations of hand sanitizer, N95 masks, goggles, and all the protective equipment you could think of. The community really rallied together in this time of need.

Soon after, people started calling and wanting to donate food for the staff. We received so much food, the generosity was truly amazing. I also helped the hospital open a call center when we had to stop in-person visitations, so families could call and ask about their loved ones. This was a tough role for me as many patients were extremely ill and we had many deaths in the early weeks of the pandemic. Families couldn’t visit their loved ones which was really tragic, and the call center provided a critical link.

Here at NY-Presbyterian Queens we interpreters are treated as part of the medical team and have always had access to protective equipment. We were also offered the vaccine when it came out to hospital staff earlier this year.

How do you develop and maintain your professional skills?

I went to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology for my bachelor’s degree. I have continued in the profession by taking professional workshops and working with mentors. A few years back I also applied to RIT’s Certificate in Healthcare Interpretation program. I worked with interpreters from all over the U.S. To this day I still have a great group of colleagues, who I now consider very close friends with whom I can exchange ideas.

What do you think is the most important thing you should do to be a successful interpreter?

I recommend interpreters keep their minds busy. As a profession we seem pretty inquisitive. Look things up and learn new things. If something comes up in an assignment you are not knowledgeable about or are interested in, make a mental note and spend some time on that topic.

What would you like changed or improved in the interpreting industry?

I wish there was more education on interpreting. There are so many misconceptions that we as interpreters face. Here are just a few:

“Did you bring the Deaf consumer here?”

“Do you help them at home?”

“Are you their family member?”

“Can they drive?”

“Do they read braille?”

What was the most memorable interpreting experience you’ve had?

The most memorable assignment was a trilingual assignment at a hospital. To this day I still remember getting to the hospital and having no idea where to park. I remember there being a gas station on the corner so I parked my car along side it. This assignment was an interpretation that was inclusive of a Spanish interpreter and myself as an American Sign Language interpreter. Years later, I had an interview to work at my current hospital and I was asked this same question. After the interview I walked to my car and I was filled with emotions. There was the gas station where I parked my car that day. I didn’t notice until after my job interview that my most memorable interpreting experience was at the hospital where I now work.

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