Four weeks into my fourth year of medical school, I did something to push myself outside of my comfort zone. I did an elective at a bilingual clinic where the expectation was that I see patients both in French and in English. To say that I was nervous before starting is an understatement. I hadn’t spoken French on a daily basis since high school and I didn’t know how much I’d be able to remember.
Because some encounters were in English and others were in French and I wouldn’t know which it would be until the patient started talking, I felt like a flight attendant when I would walk into the room and have the opening line of “Hello, bonjour!” Once the patient responded, I’d just go from there in whichever language they preferred. Even though my French was not perfect, patients were happy to be able to converse in a language that they were more comfortable in and I was happy to be able to facilitate this.
I won’t lie, the first couple of patients I saw in French were a bit of a struggle. It was tough to have to think about questions that at this point come so naturally in English. I’m sure the first patients were thinking “who is this rookie and why is she speaking so slowly?” After the bumpy start though, it started to really come back to me. I found it easier and easier to take histories and have discussions in French. That being said, some discussions were easier than others. Explaining what hemoglobin A1c is in French stands out to me as one of the more difficult discussions to maneuver. Even though I felt comfortable speaking French by the end of my elective, this is not to say that I didn’t still make mistakes. On my last day at the clinic, someone came in saying they had a cough (toux) and I asked them where their hole was because I thought they said they had a hole (trou). The perplexed look that I received in return clued me in to the fact that I’d probably missed something.
I did this elective because I wanted to challenge myself and boy did I get what I wanted. I also saw this as an opportunity to foster a skill that I spent twelve years of school developing and that I do not want to lose. Saskatchewan has a robust francophone community and I want to be able to provide for these people in their first language. I had a great time at the clinic and it felt good to get to use my French again. By the end of the elective, speaking French felt natural. Not only did I learn a lot and gain valuable experience in family medicine, but I also gained the confidence to move forward knowing that I am able to effectively care for patients in French.
I would absolutely recommend that any interested bilingual medical student try to do an elective in French. Dr. Anne Leis in Saskatoon was kind enough to help me organize this elective. Since the elective, I have yet to come across anymore French-speaking patients; but when the opportunity presents itself, I know I will be ready.
To contribute to the #MyMD blog, please contact Marg Sheridan.