Imagine being sick and helpless in a hospital, surrounded by strangers in white jackets, stethoscopes hanging from their necks. Then imagine you can’t tell them what’s wrong. You speak and they look back, uncomprehending. They speak and their words are so much gibberish.

That is the case for many patients in hospitals that serve large minority and foreign communities. To remedy the problem, students offer a 10-week course, once each semester, that teaches the rudiments of Spanish for medical practitioners. The course is open to students in medicine, nursing, public health and the Physician Associate Program. “When I try to use Spanish,” said Michelle Sanders, M.D. ’99, “patients really appreciate the effort.”

Students organized the course about six years ago, with support from the Office of Student Affairs and the Committee for the Well-Being of Students. This year, the course, under the direction of fourth-year M.D./Ph.D. student Michael Singer, has some innovations. Singer, who studied Spanish in high school and as an undergraduate at Yale, has created a Web page (habibi.med.yale.edu) with a course description and tutorials. For the first time, the students have been divided into beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. Singer persuaded the student affairs office to increase the budget to add a stipend for a second teacher, Diana Bojorquez, a medical student from California who teaches the intermediate course.

Singer also has offered students a chance to apply what they have learned. For advanced students, a typical class includes a textbook lesson in a hospital conference room followed by a visit to Spanish-speaking patients on the wards. The last class of the semester in April took four students to the room of a middle-aged Puerto Rican patient. In their halting Spanish, the students ascertained that she had come to the hospital complaining of stomach pains and vomiting that started a few days before and that she was diabetic. “Do others in your family have diabetes?” “Is the pain worse at certain times of day or night?” “Do you feel better or worse when you eat?” The questions continued, veering from her condition to her personal and family medical history.

The patient, who also speaks English, had volunteered to meet with the students to help them practice Spanish. For patients who speak no English, the hospital maintains an interpreters’ service.

The students said they have found patients receptive to their efforts to learn Spanish. Ultimately, they believe, it will benefit patients to have caregivers who speak their language and can help them feel more at ease in an unfamiliar and perhaps frightening environment. “They really appreciated that we were making an effort to communicate with them in their own language,” said Marjorie Trotter, who is in her first year of the Physician Associate Program.