She makes rounds at the National University Hospital’s (NUH) emergency department, tending and talking to the patients there.

But Ms Chew Mui Leng, 45, is not a doctor or a nurse.

Instead, the dialect interpreter is there to bridge communication gaps between dialect-speaking patients and the medical professionals who look after them.

She is fluent in Mandarin, English and four dialects — Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese and Hainanese.

At work, she translates these dialects into Mandarin or English and vice versa.

Making a big switch

For Ms Chew, becoming a dialect interpreter was a career choice that happened by chance.

Before starting her job at NUH last year, the O-level graduate had spent almost 20 years working as a coordinator in a printing company.

However, she resigned from the job five years ago to look for new career challenges.

She dabbled in a few jobs in sales and administration after that, but none brought the satisfaction she was looking for.

It wasn’t until she was hired as a temporary temperature screener at NUH during the H1N1 scare last year that things started looking up.

Impressed by her language abilities, her supervisor asked if she would consider joining the hospital full time as a dialect interpreter at its emergency department. She agreed.

She says in Mandarin: “I was ‘shocked’ that I made such a huge switch in my career, but I saw it as a chance to learn new things.”

Learning medical terms

The first two months on the job were a challenge for Ms Chew.

As it was her first foray into the medical world, she struggled to understand and translate medical terms from the various dialects to Mandarin and vice versa.

“I was scared because I didn’t want to translate anything wrongly, but I told myself not to give up. I needed to persevere,” she says.

She invested her time, both at work and after, to improve her medical knowledge.

When in doubt, she would consult her colleagues who are doctors and nurses for explanations of medical terms and conditions.

She would also copy notes and review them during her free time.

At home, she would often sacrifice sleep to do research on the Internet.

Her unwavering spirit paid off.

“With time, I gained more confidence. Now I’m not afraid anymore,” she says.

Today, Ms Chew is a pleasing sight for dialect-speaking patients and their families.

She is of such comfort to them — because she is able to speak their dialect — that they constantly ask her to stay by their side.

At times, the patients’ family members would also thank her for helping with the translation work.

“There’s a sense of satisfaction when I know I’m able to help the patients. I’m glad I can help, even if it’s in a small way,” she says.

Facing real-life trauma

Being stationed in the emergency department, which sees about 300 patients a day, was also an eye-opener for Ms Chew.

She had to accustom herself to the drama that would sometimes unfold in one of the busiest sections of the hospital.

Car-accident and stroke victims being rushed in by ambulances and grieving families were just some scenes that she witnessed while on duty.

“You need to get used to it,” she says.

Many times, she is also on hand to comfort grieving families.

She recalls an incident when a woman, a Chinese national in her 30s, was crushed by a 200kg weight.

The victim was accompanied by her younger brother, also a Chinese national, when she was rushed to the emergency department. However, her heart had stopped beating.

Tears started flowing from her brother’s eyes as he begged for her to come back to life. Unfortunately, she could not be revived.

Ms Chew and her colleagues stayed by his side, constantly comforting him.

They also helped to make arrangements for him to notify his other family members who were residing in China.

Although the job has its many challenges, Ms Chew’s passion for it does not waver.

“I have no regrets working here and I look forward to work. Every day brings with it a different experience,” she says.