It was midnight on Tuesday (Apr 14) when a sense of dread filled Sudesna Roy Chowdhury as she absorbed the breaking news: A record number of new COVID-19 cases in Singapore, with the vast majority of linked cases coming from foreign worker dormitories.
The 24-year-old Singaporean could not sleep that night, knowing that even more migrant workers were bound to be needing medical care.
Already in the past week, the recent graduate of the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine had been volunteering as a Bengali interpreter. If she was not on the phone assisting doctors attending to Bangladeshi patients, she was helping medical facilities to translate sets of instructions into Bengali.
Her sister, an emergency doctor, would send voice messages of medical terms in Bengali for her colleagues. Even their parents were roped in as more translation requests came in.
There had to be a faster, easier way to communicate with these patients, Sudesna thought. “I wouldn’t wish for any doctor to say that patient care was compromised because of a communication error.”
And the need was urgent: That same evening, it was announced that medical teams would be deployed to all dormitories within the week. Meanwhile, community isolation facilities like the Singapore Expo were also filling up with migrant workers.
Interpreters and translators would be needed in all these places.
Among the hospitals, the call for interpreters had gone out earlier. Alexandra Hospital needed help with clinical consultations and remote video calls with migrant worker patients.
So after consulting with two friends working on the frontlines, Sudesna decided to build a website that would make translations easily accessible to all the medical care teams.
Never mind that she had zero experience, or that it was 3am. There was no time to lose.
An 8-hour Effort
Sudesna had two goals for the portal – one, for frontliners to be able to conduct the first consultation with a patient without needing an interpreter; and two, for them to be able to contact an interpreter directly without a middle-man.
She spent two hours inputting the Bengali translations of relevant phrases and terms used in the emergency department – such as when checking on a patient’s travel history and symptoms – which her sister helped compile.
The Bengali font was made bigger so that patients would not have to squint. “The website had to be accessible on the phone and very easy to use,” she said.
By 5am, she was ready to record audio translations, which would come in helpful should the worker be illiterate. “The world is very quiet at 5am, so there was no background noise,” Sudesna said with a laugh.
Fifty audio files later, each matched to the relevant translation, the website was 90 per cent ready. It was 7am by then.
Sudesna created a contact list of some 13 volunteer translators she knew – mostly childhood friends – and devised a rostering system. She also decided to add instructions in Bengali on how to monitor one’s own blood pressure and maintain good personal hygiene.
It was 11am when the site was ready to go. She sent it out to five friends who were doctors, and to her sister’s colleagues in the emergency department. Another sister, who is a paediatrician, also passed the word around.
Spread Like Wildfire
Within the next hour, Sudesna had signs that the website was “spreading like wildlife”. A professor wrote to her saying that he had shared it with a group of over 1,600 doctors and all 150 of his batch mates.
Some friends told her word had spread among the Army Medical Services – which has been assisting with medical care in the dormitories – and some hospitals.
“It’s a staple now,” one text message read.
Another email she received said: “Your (website) will save lives… On behalf of Singapore, thank you.”
It was all worth the lack of sleep. “I was just so exhilarated that I could finally do more to help,” Sudesna said.
It was also none too soon. Last night (Apr 16), 654 new cases from worker dormitories were reported.
Tharun Ragupathi, a house officer at Ng Teng Fong General Hospital, found out about the website through his cohort’s Telegram group. Thus far, he’d been using broken English and sign language to communicate with the migrant workers coming in for COVID-19 testing, most of whom were Bengali speakers.
“Even when they spoke English, I often got the feeling they were just repeating what I was saying. It can be dangerous because I don’t want to miss anyone who might have COVID-19, or anything in their medical history,” said the 24-year-old.
Busy as they were with the volume of patients, there was no time to look for interpreters, Tharun added – nor was it “logistically feasible” to ask one to come down to the hospital anyway.
Now with Sudesna’s website, he can “establish for certain if the patient is low-risk” and save time, he said. “We can also move on from one patient to another quicker, and dedicate more time to more serious cases.”
More Bengali-speakers have since offered their help as interpreters, and as of Apr 15 Sudesna had 30 in her pool.
Other language-speakers have also eagerly reached out – and as a result, the website is now being translated into seven other languages, says Sudesna, namely: Tamil, Hindi, Telugu, Sinhalese, Malayalam, Malay and Mandarin.
“This makes me very hopeful for humanity,” she added.
Communication is Key
There are limitations to the website, though, which Sudesna readily acknowledges.
For one, medical staff are not always able to access their phones while seeing patients. But she hopes the website still comes in useful for them to learn and practise the terms on their own time.
Sudesna also hopes that more doctors would call up a volunteer interpreter to assist in follow-up consultations.
“It gives us the opportunity to ask about (the patient’s) concerns, as they might not share their needs readily with someone who speaks English,” Sudesna said.
In one instance, a doctor needed to find out why his patient had trouble keeping food down. It turned out that simply providing Bangladeshi food helped, Sudesna said.
“When my friends heard about this, they were so eager to deliver Bangladeshi food to the patients,” she said. With spirits low among the migrant workers, the little things like food help, she noted. “We cannot underestimate morale at this time.”
With five days to go before Sudesna begins her housemanship at Changi General Hospital, she hopes to beef up her website with as much information as possible.
For example, she has been on the phone with pharmacists to work out the translations for dosage instructions or common side effects of medication.
She will also be adding facts about COVID-19 to “fight misinformation”, and mental health resources for the workers.
Sudesna hopes for anyone who needs Bengali translation to tap on this free resource. “A language barrier can amplify the crisis to a degree that we can’t imagine,” Sudesna said.
“There is no shortage of help from the Bangladeshi community. Everyone wants to pitch in.”