S. Mtn. puts bilingual nursing on fast track
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 21, 2004 12:00 AM
Carol Sowers
Program addresses shortage

The family was hysterical.

They were convinced heart surgery on their newborn son would kill him.

"They weren't going to allow it," said Lorena Carrillo, 22, a rare bilingual nursing assistant.

Carrillo was called on to explain that the procedure was needed only to understand the baby's condition.

"The family calmed down," she said. "The baby was fine."

Scenes like that are played out every day in Arizona hospitals, where a growing Spanish-speaking population collides with not only a nursing shortage but a troublesome lack of health-care professionals who speak Spanish.

The results have been predictable, with miscommunications and other shortcomings, but solutions to the challenge facing Arizona and other border states have been hard to grasp.

In has stepped South Mountain Community College, which in spring 2003 enrolled the first 25 carefully selected bilingual students into a groundbreaking accelerated program that cuts registered nursing training from four or five years to 36 months.

The fast-track classes include an intensive course in medical terminology in Spanish.

"We will be able to know the real terms," said Erica Rodriguez, 29, a
full-time nursing student and mother of four. "We won't have to paraphrase
or talk around it."

The program, believed by South Mountain officials to be unique, is designed to get more Spanish-speaking RNs out of the classroom and into hospitals. It comes at a time when the statewide nursing shortage is worsening.

In 2000, Arizona had only 83 percent of the registered nurses it needed, according to a recent study by the Maricopa Community College District. By next year, there will be enough RNs to fill only 79 percent of the positions, the study said.

The same study says only 4 percent of statewide nurses are bilingual, a number too small to solve an "astronomical problem," says Tony Bracamonte, senior associate dean at SMCC and director of the bilingual nursing program.

Banner Health System, which has partnered with SMCC and Gateway Community College to create the program, gets 10,000 calls a month for Spanish-speaking services, Bracamonte says.

"If a bilingual nurse is not available, they call a receptionist, a maintenance worker or someone in the kitchen," he said.

More bilingual nurses will ease the problem of discharging patients who don't speak English, Bracamonte said.

"How do you get them (patients) to understand what they have to do at home for after-care?" he asks.

Carrillo said she enrolled in the bilingual nursing program last spring because "nursing is my passion."

She still works as a nursing assistant, where every day she is asked to interpret for patients, doctors and nurses.

Blanca Araiza, 32, who explored the salivary glands of a fetal pig in an anatomy and physiology class, said she understands newcomers' struggle with English. She came to Phoenix with her family from the north-central Mexican city of Durango when she was 13.

At that time she didn't know a word of English.

Araiza remembers her father's anguish as he tried to tell doctors about his pain.

She tried to help. But it wasn't easy in those early days for a young girl to interpret the intimacies of her father's illness to his doctors.

Not now. Like all students in the new program, Araiza had to prove her fluency in English and Spanish by writing essays and surviving difficult interviews in both languages.

It wasn't easy. Of the 175 who applied, 60 were interviewed, and 25 were chosen for the inaugural spring 2003 class. An additional 24 entered the program in January.

They will take their advanced training at Gateway Community College. By the end of the program, they will spend most of their time in hospitals, providing a new corps of near-nurses with sharpened Spanish skills.

Raul Tapia, 38, is the only man in the first class of 25. He focused a microscope on a slide of thyroid tissue during a lab class, then re-created the cells on paper with colored pencils.

For him, the new program is a continuation of an on-again, off-again career in medicine.

He is an HIV counselor for Maricopa County and a certified nursing assistant  at a Phoenix hospital working with long-term-care patients.

The shortage of bilingual nurses worries him.

"Often I'm the only Spanish speaker on the floor," he said.

Soon, he might not be.