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Sister Act with Heart and Soul
A nun brings her loving spirit to JHM International

Sister Mary Ann Wood with villagers high in the Bolivian Andes (1991).

High in the Bolivian Andes are villages with tongue-twisting names like Machacamrca and Colquencha. For 35 years, they were home for Mary Ann Wood, a School Sisters of Notre Dame missionary for indigenous people. Wood toiled 14,000 feet high in places that had neither electricity nor potable water. She lived 60 miles from La Paz, a four-hour, bone-rattling truck ride away.

Wood picked up Aymara, the most common Indian language in the region. Working primarily with the youth and women, she taught them anything they wanted—health care, handcrafts, or Spanish, so they could converse when they went to market to sell potatoes. In a society in which Indian women are oppressed, the nun devised programs “to make them feel whole,” she says. “It’s my passion to love people and let them know they count.”

It is precisely this spirit that Wood brings to her work as an interpreter for JHM International. On this day, taking short, rapid steps, Wood, a diminutive, pencil-thin figure in a dark blue suit who is now “70-plus years old,” weaves through the labyrinthine hospital corridors with her patient, a burly, three-star general from Peru. He’s lost hearing in one ear due to a botched operation overseas.

The general waited almost six months for the coveted appointment with a Hopkins otologist. E-mails and long-distance calls flew from Lima to Baltimore and on to the Peruvian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Wood coordinated the communication, doggedly pursuing her goal: nailing an appointment for the ailing general.

Wood interprets for a young Peruvian in the Outpatient Center.

Now, in Spanish, she requests his medical records. Once the physician appears, she interprets for the pair in rapid-fire, precise Spanish and English. There is far more to being an interpreter than just being a “translating machine,” explains Wood. It’s impossible to remain objective and uninvolved with the patient. “You can’t. The job is time-consuming. Giving of yourself is one of our priorities.”

At JHM International, Wood is one of 35 full-time interpreters. An additional 50 part-time translators bring to 20 the number of languages staff interpret for its international clientele, who hail from more than 90 countries. Staff assist in hotel and travel reservations and transportation and push patients’ paperwork through proper channels. Interpreters are in constant communication with patients, even before they arrive. On top of bridging language and cultural gaps, they advocate for patients’ needs.

Some encounters are difficult. One of Wood’s patients, a 3-year-old boy from Spain, died from heart complications. His mother asked that a prayer service be held at the Chapel of the Chimes in Baltimore. Wood expected a handful of staff. Instead, more than 50 showed up. The grieving mother told Wood she would never forget the outpouring of support.

Last summer, Wood took home JHM International’s award for excellent service. It was a testament to the undivided attention and compassion shown by the nun to so many patients and families throughout her 14 years of service.

—Lydia Levis Bloch



Johns Hopkins Medicine

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