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Paola Velasquez knows firsthand the frustration that a non-English speaking patient feels when seeking medical care.

When she first came to the United States from Colombia at age 4, her parents spoke little English. So Velasquez interpreted for her mother during visits to the gynecologist.

"Using children as interpreters is the worst," Velasquez said. "Imagine a parent has a tumor, and the first person to find out is the child."

The Velasquez family lived in the northwest suburbs but would often drive to the city to find a Spanish-speaking physician.

The frustration fueled Velasquez's desire to teach English so immigrant families would not have to put their children through the stress of interpretation.

Today, she is a medical interpreter and terminologist at Sherman Hospital in Elgin and part of a seven-person staff of full-time interpreters who help non-English speaking patients.

Velasquez also is trained in medical terminology so she can explain what doctors diagnose.

"Medical interpreters must have a working knowledge of what medical terms mean," Velasquez said.

According to data from the 2000 U.S. Census, there has been a 60 percent increase in Illinois' foreign-born population since 1990. An estimated 12 percent of residents are foreign born, and 16 percent don't speak English well.

Experts stress that as Chicago's patient population becomes more linguistically diverse, medical facilities must work harder to provide fair and equitable access to health care.

In 2003, the law in Illinois was amended to make language assistance services mandatory for hospitals and long-term care facilities. Hospitals are required to publicize their interpreting services and offer the service to patients even before they ask for it.

"I honestly don't think (patients) know or are aware they have the right to an interpreter," said Anibal Rodriguez, director of interpreter services at Stroger Hospital.

Susan Kim, program manager of Asian Health Coalition of Illinois, said some patients are hesitant to demand an interpreter.

At Stroger Hospital, there were 80,000 encounters with non-English speaking patients in 2005, according to hospital officials. Most of the foreign speaking patients were Spanish, Polish, Chinese or Russian.

"This is a public hospital," said Donald O'Connell, director of hospital operations. "Do I have enough, will I ever have enough (interpreters)? No. There's a growing population, there's always a need."

Medill News Service reporter Setarreh Massihzadegan contributed to this story.

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