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Peer Language Navigators assist ESL patients 

Imagine landing in a country where the language is not your own. Soon after arriving, you begin feeling ill but don’t know how or where to get help. When you finally do receive medical attention, you don’t understand the instructions given to you as you leave the doctor’s office.

This scenario is all too common for the large number of people of international origin who now live in Anchorage. Fortunately, a growing group of advocates has recognized their need for assistance and is building a cadre of bilingual and cultural Peer Language Navigators, or PLNs.

With the help of a generous contribution as part of the $58.2 million in community benefit support from Providence Health & Services Alaska in 2014, the Anchorage Health Literacy Collaborative helps those with limited English and little understanding of American culture to navigate Alaska’s health system.

Anchorage is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the country. According to 2012 statistics, Anchorage has had a 25 percent increase of foreign-born children in the last 10 years. They speak such languages as Nepali, Somali, Spanish and any host of Southeast Asian languages. “These courageous and caring community leaders are sharing information about health and health care, and helping their community members find reliable health information,” said Providence employee Linda Shepard, RN, who helps coordinate the PLN training for the collaborative. “They’re the cultural brokers. They really want to help their communities.”

The PLNs who have been trained thus far represent diverse languages – Russian, Korean, Hmong, Thai, Nuer, Somali, Lao, Wolof, Nepali, Spanish, Mandarin and more. New PLNs are being recruited each year.

At one training session, Shepard worked with women from Mexico, Senegal, Nepal and Ethiopia on how to create disaster preparedness kits.

“If you are in a building when an earthquake starts, you want to drop, cover and hold on, and if possible, get close to an inside wall,” Shepard said, as they shared information together from a document provided by the State of Alaska. “Do not go outside.”

Marisol Vargas, a vibrant and intelligent woman from Mexico City questioned this.

“Don’t go outside?” she asked. “In Mexico, they always say go outside.”

Therein lies the challenge of making a transition from one country to the next, Shepard pointed out. Not only does the language barrier present a challenge, but also the cultural norms to which one is accustomed.

Ngone Vaught, another gifted and dedicated PLN, is from Senegal. In her country, people use soda as “medicine,” but here in the United States, people are encouraged to avoid a lot of sugary drinks and told that there are more healthful choices.

“This is hard,” Vaught said, “to tell people ‘no, this is not the way to do this, soda is bad.’ ”

Shepard said with Providence’s continued support, the Anchorage Health Literacy Collaborative has made great strides. Their post-training assessments have shown that participants’ health knowledge has increased dramatically, and that PLNs are more readily able to access the health information they need. 

“We are giving people the information they need, in a way they understand it, to make good decisions, and that is what health literacy is all about,” Shepard said. “It’s on us as a health care community to make sure health information is culturally relevant and that everyone has this sort of access.” ​​