ST. CLOUD, MINN. - When Adalberto Villalobos was told he was losing his job with the company he'd worked at for nearly 16 years, he didn't get upset.
He smiled, packed his belongings in a cardboard box and walked out the door -- into a new career that he says is the most fulfilling work he's ever done.
Now, Villalobos spends much of his day at St. Cloud-area hospitals or clinics, helping to bridge the communication gap between Spanish-speaking patients and English-speaking health care providers. He's part of the field of medical interpreters that is seeing increased demand as the St. Cloud area becomes more diverse.
For Villalobos, 43, a native of Costa Rica who moved to St. Cloud 20 years ago, interpreting is a chance to use his bilingual skills, curiosity and love of learning to help people.
"Being in different careers or works in my life, there's none that has given me the immediate rewards that I get when I interpret," he said.
While in college in Costa Rica, Villalobos thought he wanted to be a marine biologist. After a negative experience in a math class, he decided to pursue journalism.
"I'm a people person," he said. "I love to dig and find out and connect and develop relationships and connections with people. I thought that by being a communicator, I could use that power to help society and to bring truth and reality and the facts onto the table."
A painful process
After moving to St. Cloud, Villalobos struck out on getting a newspaper job. Instead, he went to work for Creative Memories, translating sales materials into Spanish, training staff and interpreting at conferences.
When the economy took a downturn, that program was dismantled, a painful process to watch, Villalobos said.
While working at Creative Memories in a different department, Villalobos had the idea that he should put his bilingual skills to use again. He reached out to Jan and Francisco Almarza, owners of the Bridge-World Language Center, in 2010. He began using his vacation days to do some medical interpreting.
"I simply fell in love with it. I enjoyed it tremendously," he said.
In October 2010, the Bridge offered a 40-hour training session on interpreting, and Villalobos was among the first group of graduates, spending every Saturday for five weeks honing his skills.
Then one Tuesday in 2011, Villalobos was told he was being laid off from Creative Memories. He decided the time was right to make the leap into medical interpreting as a career. By Thursday, he was interpreting full-time.
Villalobos feels blessed that his transition to a new career went so smoothly in the midst of a struggling economy.
"We all know how serious and tough and difficult it is out there for anybody," he said.
By March 2012, Villalobos had passed oral and written exams to become a certified interpreter. To prepare, he read his thick medical dictionary cover to cover, even having his two children quiz him.
Medical interpreters follow strict legal and ethical guidelines. They must maintain confidentiality and professionalism. Villalobos sits next to and slightly behind the patient and keeps his head down. He asks the doctor and the patient to address each other, not him. He interprets everything that's said in the room, even if there are multiple people present. He asks everyone to speak in short phrases to make it easier to keep up.
One of the hardest parts of the job is keeping a professional distance. He's not there to be the patient's friend or advocate, even if the doctor is delivering bad news.
"It sounds cold," he said. "And it is incredibly tough for me personally, because I'm a social bee, and I always want the best for people. I want to help people. I want to save them their pain and solve their problems. But when I put my interpreter hat on, I'm a machine."
Sometimes that can be very difficult, he said.
"It's tough when you have grandma who wants to tell you about her tamales recipe," he said. "It's really, really hard, but you have to work hard on removing the feelings and the emotional side of the business. It's almost like a contradiction, because you're dealing with humans ... but you've got to be almost inhuman."
Health care regulations require medical providers who receive federal funding to provide interpreters. Research on the effects of bad communication on patient safety is also growing, said Izabel Arocha, executive director of the International Medical Interpreters Association. In some cases, misunderstandings causing medical errors have resulted in lawsuits.
"There's just been a huge increase in awareness that has changed these practices," Arocha said.
Villalobos takes his job very seriously. He talks to doctors, reads about different medical conditions and treatments and has even observed heart surgeries and other medical procedures to expand his knowledge.
"That kind of gives you a better, clearer understanding of what you're trying to convey when you interpret, so at the end you sound more professional and knowledgeable," he said.