Updated: Jan 24
"It’s not pretty, but it’ll get the job done.”
I’d bet nearly every firefighter has said something like that after jerry rigging a solution to fix a problem.
You never have the right parts. Sometimes you don’t have any parts. Still, you put on your thinking cap and figure out a way to solve the problem. You combine whatever you have on hand with any knowledge you already have. You construct a temporary or sometimes permanent fix.
Does it work with language?
To me this is ironic, because those same handy, inventive firefighters will tell you they don’t know enough Spanish to talk to patients on scene. What’s even more ironic is that many of these firefighters have small children, too young to even speak, yet they sure can communicate with them.
Infants don’t start out speaking a language. But they do manage to communicate information to their caregivers nearly every second of the day. They kick, scream, and cry. They probably know that this communication is not pretty, but it’ll get the job done.
If you’re learning a language, you might consider taking that on as a motto. While you’re advancing through the language, you’re going create and say a lot of not pretty phrases. You’re going to butcher the grammar. And while you’re being an ugly butcher, you’ll be moving forward to where you want to be. Here’s something that happened to me:
Jerry rigging on scene
Engine 1 received a call around mid-day: a person was having chest pain. As we drove to the call, the dispatcher informed our crew that this patient was diabetic and Spanish-speaking only. Now, before every call, I like to walk through our medical protocols and type some phrases into Google translate to help me remember to ask them on scene. I double check I know the word for diabetes. It’s diabetes.
As we’re walking up to the 3rd floor, the patient’s wife meets us coming down the steps. She tells me that he’s been struggling with his health for months now and today’s gotten worse. I ask her about the routine questions about her husband’s medical history: medications, allergies.
I then ask her to tell me what’s been going on today, why she called 911. She tells me that his blood sugar has been swinging up and down the last week because he’s been sick. Today he can’t get up out of his chair.
As I’m going through possible causes in my head, I wonder if he might need to see his endocrinologist to adjust his medications.
“¿Él tiene unnnnnn………” Endocrinologist? I haven’t a clue what endocrinologist might be in Spanish, so I shoot my shot and go with “¿Un doctor de azucar?”
I’m not joking when I say everyone in the room busted out into hysterics. The wife was laughing so hard, she had tears in her eyes. The patient, still in his chair was coughing between laughs. Their adult daughter was hunched over grabbing her mom’s shoulder. Even the guys on my crew who didn’t speak Spanish were laughing because they knew “a doctor of sugar” or in effect “a sugar doctor” was not a real thing.
As soon as the room returned to normal. The wife shook her head. Her husband did not have an endocrinologist, and he hadn’t been able to see his primary care in weeks due to COVID. We ran some preliminary tests on him, evaluated his blood sugar, took an ECG of his heart, and got him going to the hospital.
Despite the 3-minute intermission of laughter, he was sick and needed better help. I let his family know which hospital he’d be going to and how’d they be able to reach him. When I asked his wife if there was anything else she needed or if she had any other questions, without warning, she embraced me with both arms and whispered "gracias".
Yes, you’ll get some funny looks when you’re first trying out your new language on strangers. You might even send an entire room of people into a fit of laughter, but as long as you keep using the skills you’ve learned—no matter how “not pretty” they are— they’ll eventually get the job done.