This medical interpreter is a voice for Baltimore’s Latino patients during COVID-19 treatment and more

Elsa Aguilar Bustos is a medical interpreter on the frontlines in Baltimore during the pandemic.
Elsa Aguilar Bustos is a medical interpreter on the frontlines in Baltimore during the pandemic. (Elsa Aguilar Bustos)

Elsa Aguilar Bustos helps as women are having babies. She helps patients brought in for emergency care. Now as she works the 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. shift at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, she also helps those suffering from COVID-19, along with others

Bustos, 66, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador, has been a medical interpreter for 16 years. Her job is vital in Baltimore where Latinos have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. In Maryland, Latinos represent 10% of the state’s population, but 23% of COVID-19 cases.


“An interpreter is the voice of the patient when they cannot speak [English,]” said Stella Karias, who was Bustos’ manager for five years. An interpreter role is very important during medical discussions, especially in making sure that the message is effectively communicated. They are a very important part of the clinical team.”

When the pandemic began, the hospital was pushing for interpreters to work from home, as a way to minimize exposure and accommodate for the lack of personal protective equipment. Bustos said that was out of the question for her.


“Elsa was the one that said, ‘I do not want to stop working, and I do not mind coming to the hospital.’ She wanted to still continue to come in and serve our patients face-to-face,” Karias said.

Bustos knows what it is like to battle COVID-19. She had it earlier this year.

“My whole body was hurting me,” Bustos recalled. “I did not eat for five days.”

She said she had to isolate at home with her husband and daughter, who also became ill. They all recovered in late October.

Amidst the pandemic, Bustos has been interpreting in person at Bayview. She also has worked the night shift for the past nine years and has no plans of retiring.

“When we’re called for an emergency ... there’s an accident on the roads or whatever, we have to be there, " said Bustos, who along with fellow interpreters helps reduce trauma and anxiety during such situations.

On a given night, Bustos could interpret for as many as 10 patients. Bustos could always be counted on to work extra shifts or cover on a last minute’s notice, according to Karias.

“There are beautiful moments, there are sad moments, there are unpleasant moments, and there are moments that impact you,” she said.

Bustos finds it especially difficult when children and young people are admitted to the hospital or when she has to give families bad news.

COVID-19 has heightened the need for qualified, professional medical interpreters, who not only have language fluency, but are also trained in cultural sensitivity and removing emotional bias. In addition to possessing a thorough understanding of medical terminology, diagnoses, and treatments, they build trust between the patient, their family, and their physicians, according to Karias.

Bustos has a long history of helping many in the Latino immigrant community. During her 30 years in Baltimore, she has worked as an administrative assistant and receptionist in Highlandtown at the San Miguel Arcángel and San Patricio churches, Centro de la Comunidad and a Hopkins-owned clinic at Tindeco on Boston Street.

What I can tell you about Elsa is that she loved her job and she was very caring and compassionate with patients,” Karias said. ”She was very familiar with the community and with the different organizations. She didn’t only interpret for them, but she wanted to help them in any other way she could.


This article is part of our Newsmaker series that profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor, Sundra Hominik at shominik@baltsun.com.

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