A native of Haiti, he has been tapped by the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals to interpret the gruesome experiences of three Haitians who were severely burned in the Jan. 12 earthquake and flown to North Carolina for treatment.
His work – part cultural ambassador, part medical decoder – has thrust him into the lives of the traumatized patients and helped them understand the experience of being snatched from devastation into a sophisticated medical hub with a language all its own.
“They rely on me,” Giordani said. “Even if Haiti is a poor place, what happened for people to survive is helping each other. I told them, I will always be here for them.”
Giordani, who speaks French and Creole, was hired through an agency UNC Hospitals works with, Accessible Languages Inc. The service meets a growing need in North Carolina, where the population is increasingly diverse.
The greatest demand is for people who speak Spanish, and UNC Hospitals has 26 Spanish interpreters on staff armed with iPods for instant translations of esoteric body parts or answers to other medical questions. Last year, the hospital had more than 65,000 requests for its Spanish interpreters. .
In addition, the hospital hires contractors such as Giordani when less common language skills are needed, and uses special telephone technology to access interpretive services worldwide.
“The vocabulary is enormously complex,” said Shane Rogers, director of interpreter services for UNC Hospitals. “They could be interpreting as a physician explains an orthopedic procedure, and 20 minutes later discussing a brain tumor. They have to go from discipline to discipline and have a good grasp of the medical terminology no matter who they’re interpreting for.”
The case of the Haitian burn patients required a special touch.
Unlike most patients, whose illnesses and traumas are suffered while they are in the state, the Haitians were plucked from the debris of the earthquake and flown by a military plane to Florida, and then to North Carolina.
The initial shock of seeing the patients was difficult for Giordani.
One man, Eriek Louis, was at a gas station when the earthquake caused an explosion. He suffered deep burns that went untended for days.
“I had never see anybody that burned my whole, entire life,” Giordani said. “My heart almost pulled out of my body.”
It was Giordani’s job to ask Louis how his injuries occurred, so the UNC doctors knew what they were dealing with. In turn, Giordani had to explain to Louis what the doctors planned to do to treat the injuries.
Two patients were accompanied by a family member, but they were otherwise alone, in pain, and isolated from their culture. Giordani, who immigrated to the United States in 1967 at the age of 20, said he tries to offer a comforting voice to fill those voids. As an immigrant who learned English after he arrived in Chicago to join his father, he said he understands the worries and fears of being in a new place.
His own journey led to a degree in computer science from Chicago State University, and then 27 years with AT&T in Illinois, Florida and North Carolina. Now retired from AT&T and living in Chapel Hill, Giordani has returned to school to earn teaching credentials.
And while the Haitians who are recovering at the burn center face uncertainty, Giordani said he has worked to ease fears.
“I wanted them to think they were in the right place at the right time,” he said.
Creator of connections
Dr. Bruce Cairns, medical director of the burn center, said that establishing trust is especially crucial for burn treatments, because recovery depends on patients participating in difficult exercises.
“Lionel has been wonderful in allowing us to create those connections,” Cairns said.
Giordani said he has grown close to the three patients and their family members over the past weeks, volunteering to help them and visiting the burn center on his own time. In most circumstances interpreters are discouraged from forming close ties, but this situation is different.
“Given the cultural isolation and the trauma they went through,” Rogers said, the special attention fromGiordani has helped the Haitians mend.
For Giordani, the life-altering experience of his countrymen has changed him as well, reconnecting him to a past he left long ago.
“I’m glad to be with them,” he said. “We come from the same place.”