Ms. Ngo's job was to interpret for Cambodian and Chinese-speaking patients at several community clinics. In actuality, she did much, much more. At the office, she wrote translations of health education materials, assisted patients in completing forms, and worked with providers to identify and arrange referrals for specialty and social service care. She coached refugees in US health care practices and how to use its health care system, and she counseled health care workers about their patients' culture, beliefs, and practices.
As if all this weren't enough, in her spare time Ms. Ngo began to do volunteer work. "When I translated for people, other things popped out," she explains. "You know, this family didn't have food, that family's children were sick, families were separated, had no clothes, no place to live. There were so many of them, it was overwhelming. I did a lot of home visits on weekends, because these people came, and they were mostly country people, farmers — not like my family — and they cried a lot, but we did not have time to talk at the clinic. I was curious, though, and I wanted to help. So I went to their houses on weekends, to find out how they lived their lives, who they had around them, what kind of troubles they had, what kind of help they needed. And then, to see how much I could do on my own." If they had no food, she found food for them, or showed them how to get to the food bank. She showed them how to take the bus. If, like many women with children who had lost their husbands, they were unable to take the bus, she did their errands for them. If their child was sick, and they'd come in for medication, she'd visit to make sure the child was okay, and help the family decide whether to go to the emergency room. She would attend pregnant women when they went into labor, interpreting for them with the hospital staff.