Elizabeth Marshall: A Medical Provider Connecting Through Language


We had the honor of interviewing Elizabeth Marshall about her experiences and insights on providing healthcare . Izzy has a wealth of experience and it is clear that she will be a compassionate physician. It  share a condensed version of our conversation with the Canopy community:

My name is Elizabeth Marshall and I am a medical student at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School. I wasn’t always planning on attending medical school: in college I studied anthropology and upon graduation I worked for three years overseas in Southeast Asia doing public health work. During that time I decided that I had changed my mind, and I came back to the United States determined to go into medicine. Now I’m in my fourth year at Brown.

During my years in Southeast Asia, before I started at Brown, I worked for a few different non-profits in public health. The first organization had a health program: we provided training courses for local doctors and nurses, we bought supplies for clinics... During my second year in Cambodia, I was living in a town in the western part of the country where I was a part of an organization doing a nutrition intervention. We had 300 households to whom we gave the training and the supplies to grow more vegetables. We also prepared education courses about nutrition, the importance of having a varied diet, for example. My job was to help do a baseline qualitative and quantitative survey to measure the state of things before and after the intervention: to see what was working and what wasn’t, whether the intervention was having the outcomes we expected, whether we were meeting our goals. Improving maternal and child health was the main objective.These were my first few jobs out of college and they were wonderful: I was learning just about as much as I was contributing! I am interested in public health, and these experiences were interesting and valuable. However, I did a lot of reflection on what makes me feel personally fulfilled and what I think I’m good at, and although I believe there are a lot of jobs I could choose where I feel that I’m making a positive impact, I thought medicine was the right choice for me. And now, I’m midway through fourth year and I’ve applied for a residency to do primary care in internal medicine.  I suppose that I realized in my pursuit of public health, that there are so many ways - under the umbrella term of healthcare - to be engaged in accomplishing the ultimate goal of keeping people healthy.  I ultimately thought that becoming a doctor would be the most rewarding way for me to help people be as healthy as they can be.

My time abroad influenced me in many ways: one of the influencers was language. I learned to speak some Vietnamese and Cambodian when I was in Southeast Asia; during this experience I realized that speaking a language is crucial in being able to truly connect with somebody. Communication is important in any profession but particularly important in the medical profession. This recognition has stayed with me and was part of what motivated me to learn Spanish. I did take Spanish in college, but it’s been years and years since I used it, and Spanish is the second most common language in the United States.

I found out about the Canopy Medical Spanish Training course from one of my classmates. Three or four of my classmates had asked one of our deans about whether we had options for medical Spanish courses and it was the dean who recommended Canopy. We actually had free access to Rosetta Stone and so I tried Rosetta Stone for a while but I stopped because it wasn’t as directed as the Canopy course turned out to be. As I don’t have so much free time, I decided that if I was really going to sit down and learn Spanish, I should preferentially learn medical Spanish. Learning medical Spanish was something that I had really wanted to do throughout my whole medical school experience. I’m not doing it for credit, I’m doing it because it’s a skill that I think is important and it’s a skill that I want to have. Before the course, I just enough Spanish under my belt to get me in trouble! I would say that I could speak Spanish and suddenly be conversing at a level way over-my-head, finding myself relying heavily on situational or contextual knowledge in the attempt to understand. Long term, I’d really like to be truly bilingual because I can consider more jobs; it would open up a lot of doors. I would like to go out to the West Coast for residency – now I’m in Providence where there is a significant Spanish-speaking population – but on the West Coast specifically and in our country in general, you really need to speak Spanish to be considered for certain jobs. There are so many things that I could learn and become better at to benefit a patient, but I’m starting here because I think it’s more urgent. Once I tackle Spanish, I’ll move on to my next goal!

In my experience in medical school, you are aware all of the time that not speaking fluent English creates a lot of problems for patients. It’s now pretty routine to have translator phones available. And those do work…. but what is lost is the human connection. Some might argue that the human connection is not always necessary to take care of someone’s physical health, but in a primary care setting, the relationships and trust you build with patients is vital. This is easier to do when you are the one speaking. Additionally - though it’s not supposed to happen – it is sometimes the case that the person translating on your behalf should not be translating: a family member, a medical student, somebody who isn’t a designated medical translator. But, if you feel comfortable speaking Spanish then you avoid that.

Check out our medical Spanish course here