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Doctors without language barriers

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WORLD Radio - Doctors without language barriers

A medical clinic in Clarkston, Ga., helps immigrants get the care they need


Photo by Lindsay Wolfgang Mast

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, November 30th. We thank you for starting your day with WORLD Radio. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: medicine for migrants.

The American medical system can be difficult to navigate. From referrals, to appointments, to billing, it can get complicated—even if you’ve always lived here.

REICHARD: For immigrants and refugees, it can be even more daunting. WORLD's Lindsay Wolfgang Mast tells us about a group of doctors who are working to change that in one town in Georgia.

ROBBIE CONTINO: I’m Dr. Contino.

LINDSAY MAST, REPORTER: When Dr. Robbie Contino knocks on the door and heads into an exam room at the medical clinic where he works, he can usually count on a couple of things: Whoever’s inside needs his help, and they probably don’t speak much, if any, English.

Welcome to Clarkston, Georgia. Population 14,000. A one-point-eight square mile town just outside Atlanta that’s been called “the Ellis Island of the South.” Half its population is foreign born—many of them refugees, having left their homes during wars and political unrest.

CONTINO: Kurdish, Kuku…

Nepali, Khem Rwanda, Dari, Bengali…

CONTINO: Japanese, Ynoor, Karen, Burmese, Chinese…

That’s just a smattering of the 42 languages translated during appointments here at Ethnē Health.

It’s a faith-based community clinic, caring for the physical and mental health of patients from Clarkston’s widely differing cultures, backgrounds, and income levels. Dr. Contino is one of the founders.

Almost a decade ago, he and three friends were all medical students in Memphis. They lived and worked among under-served people. And they felt led to continue that. But where? They prayed—a lot. Should they go to California? Baltimore? Then they found Clarkston: a hub of refugee resettlement for decades. It had agencies to help with housing and jobs, but healthcare? Not as much.

Dr. Contino says people here often arrive with little by way of material goods, but quite a bit of physical and mental illness.

CONTINO: Many of the people in our community have been through a refugee experience and experience such loss and trauma, often having to be forced to leave their countries, most of the time because of violence.

Ethnē opened in 2018, operating out of a converted two-room house for three half-days a week—a medical startup with multiple challenges.

All that translating? It takes time. So does explaining medical bills, finding referrals, going over test results, building trust.

Patients pay what they can. Ethne takes insurance, but those without get care too— thanks to donors and supporters.

Ethnē employees Ta and Htoo both spent time in a Burmese refugee camp in Thailand. They demonstrate what a patient visit might sound like in Karen.

KAREN TRANSLATION: Do you have pain anywhere else?

BURMESE TRANSLATION No, just there.

It’s tedious—but it helps patients feel comfortable and informed about what’s happening.

AUDIO: [MOUNIRA EXPLAINING BLOOD PRESSURE CUFF]

Mounira Teman escaped Sudan’s civil war with her husband in 2002. Today, she’s Ethnē’s lead medical assistant. But back then, as a new wife, she only knew Arabic. When she went to a clinic, she was too embarrassed to talk about pregnancy symptoms with her male translator.

MOUNIRA TEMAN: When I got pregnant with my first baby, she was premature. But, because I didn't know how to tell the doctor that I was pregnant. And they didn't do a test for me, for pregnancy test, that time they gave me medication.

Her experience highlights the importance of care that takes into account culture and language. With no knowledge of the pregnancy, the other doctor prescribed a young, pregnant Teman medication.

TEMAN: And it was very difficult pregnancy.

After Ethnē launched in 2018, word got around. The clinic has outgrown two locations in five years. Since 2022, a new office—with room to grow—houses the medical team’s 39 employees.

SOUND: [DENTAL DRILL]

Last month, Ethnē opened up a brand-new dental practice in their old space across the street. There was no real budget for it. The X-ray machine? Gifted from two local dentists. The three dental chairs? Bought at a discount from a dentist doing an upgrade.

Dr. Eunice Chay chalks all that up to God’s providence. Chay is Ethnē’s dental director. She’s a child of immigrants herself—her parents moved to the U-S in the 70s. She says she sees a new opportunity here to show patients dignified dental care.

DR. EUNICE CHAY: In dental we deal with loud sounds, bright lights, sharp objects in the mouth and small quarters.

That can be difficult for someone with trauma in their background, or someone who has never seen a dentist. When Chay treats someone brand new to dental care, she knows she has to explain things carefully, like the suction tool. She says it’s like a gentle vacuum cleaner in the mouth.

Dr Chay: Okay I’m gonna put it in your mouth, just close.

SOUND: SUCTION

Of course, with most patients all that would be explained through translation.

SOUND: [BLOOD PRESSURE MACHINE]

Back at the medical clinic, Mounira Teman says Ethnē’s translation and trust building helped save her life.

She contrasts her first pregnancy with what she went through in 2021: A breast cancer diagnosis, after describing a lump to one of Ethnē’s doctors. Had that happened as a new immigrant, too embarrassed to talk to a male translator, she wonders if she would’ve lived. But she did. Tears slip down her face as she recounts Ethne staff caring for her family while she underwent chemotherapy. Doctor Contino even knocked on her door, bearing food he made himself.

To her, it shows humility, extreme humility—that doctors like Contino and the other founders would give up money and prestige…to extend the love of God to patients, employees and community in a way that can break down any language barrier.

TEMAN: When you pray “your kingdom come, on earth as in heaven” I see that Clarkston have a small heaven here, that God’s kingdom is here, just for me. I always thank God that I found this place.

For WORLD, I’m Lindsay Wolfgang Mast in Clarkston, Georgia.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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