Former Marshall professor uses language to break barriers


Submitted Photos

A toddler suffering from a cleft palate, is photographed after surgery administered on behalf of the medical organization, Ecuadent.

Although she is retired, former Marshall University modern languages professor Maria Carmen Riddel said she is still busy. Riddel returned in February after volunteering on her fifth medical mission trip in Ecuador.

Riddel volunteers with Ecuadent, an organization that brings medical and dental care to children throughout Ecuador in South America.

Many of the surgeries the organization provides involve cases of children with cleft lips and cleft palates, but doctors also separate fingers and toes or remove extra fingers and toes and remove cysts, tumors, etc. from patients.

But Riddel does not volunteer as a surgeon or a nurse, rather she volunteers as an interpreter.

Ecuadent is a group mainly made up of American, English speaking doctors, so they require an interpreter to communicate with their patients. This is the role Riddel fulfills on these mission trips.

“It’s very interesting, at least for me,” Riddel said. “Because I have traveled a great deal, but I’ve always gone from the artistic and historical perspective. And now when I go to Ecuador, I talk to the people, the everyday people and they tell me about grandma and the kids in school and what they do to make a living, so I’m learning Ecuador in a very different way than I have traditionally visited and seen other countries and other places.”

Ecuadent began as a dental project, where several dentists would go to Ecuador to clean teeth, repair cavities, etc., but the dentists realized there were many children with cleft lips and cleft palates in Ecuador, so they expanded their dental mission to a surgical mission.

The Ecuadent team Riddel travels with is made up of 25 to 30 people, which includes anesthesiologists, plastic surgeons, occasionally a nose, throat and ear specialist, surgery nurses, recovery nurses, post-anesthesia caregivers and interpreters.

The mission trip takes place in February and lasts around 10 days.

As an interpreter, Riddel is in the room with the doctors and anesthesiologists when the patients are interviewed prior to their operation. Riddel is also in the room during the operations. Riddel said since the patients are children, the doctors like for an interpreter who speaks Spanish to be in the room to calm the children down and tell them everything is going to be okay.

There are also sometimes Ecuadorian doctors and nurses in the operating room learning from the American doctors and offering help when needed. Riddel said an interpreter is needed to allow the doctors to communicate with each other and ask questions.

Riddel is originally from Madrid, Spain and said she has a different accent than the people in Ecuador.

“The first time I went I was very nervous about whether they would understand me or not and they do, they understand me perfectly and I understand them perfectly,” Riddel said.

Riddel said Ecuadent operated on 40 patients this year. The number of operations depend on the degree of difficulty of the surgeries and Riddel said cleft palate surgeries can take longer than removing a cyst from an ear, for example. Riddel said the doctors try to do more difficult surgeries first, along with surgeries for small children and for those who have longer traveling distances.

Riddel said one of the reasons the doctors may not be able to perform a surgery is because the patient cannot be given anesthesia due to having asthma, a cold or heart problems. Since the surgeries they provide are not emergencies, Riddel said the doctors want to be sure a patient will not have any problems under anesthesia.   

“I didn’t realize, because I’ve never been around the medical world, how important the anesthesia is in terms of the kids,” Riddel said. “So the anesthesia a lot of the times determines who we can operate on or who we can’t operate on.”

Riddel said not being able to perform surgery does not happen often and sometimes people who have the cold or the flu the first year can return the next year and be able to undergo anesthesia.

Riddel said volunteering as a interpreter is gratifying and in many ways very emotional.

Riddel said it is not unusual on the first day the group gets to their location to see mothers breastfeeding their babies in the waiting room and the milk is coming out the babies’ noses. When babies have a cleft palate, they cannot suck and nurse properly, so Riddel said not only are the surgeries good for aesthetic reasons, but they may also allow babies to eat better.

Riddel said the children are usually very young and scared, but their parents are usually very happy after the surgery.

“You come out with a child from surgery, as soon as they go into the recovery room the parents can come in and be with the child when he wakes up,” Riddel said. “And the minute they see the kid, they want everybody in the family to come in and see the child and a lot of times they cry and they kiss us and they thank us.”

Riddel has been volunteering with the Ecuadent program for five years. This February, the group traveled to Esmeraldas.

“I’m always heartbroken because sometimes you see incredibly sad stories,” Riddel said. “And it was particularly hard this year because Esmeraldas had torrential rains and half the town of Esmeraldas was washed out.”

Riddel said a lot of people were displaced and many were still in shelters, so the Ecuadent volunteers took extra suitcases packed with towels, diapers, disinfectants, etc. to donate to the shelters.

“The best part about being an interpreter I think is the contact with the people, with the patients and with the children, the children are beautiful,” Riddel said.

Riddel has been retired for five years after being a modern languages professor at Marshall University for 30 years. Riddel said her two projects now include volunteering for Ecuadent in February and being the program director for the Marshall University study abroad summer program in Madrid, Spain.

Amanda Gibson can be contacted at [email protected].