A Cal Poly alumna founded a health advocate agency for the Central Coast’s Indigenous community — but she didn’t expect to find herself on the frontlines of a pandemic.

On the Central Coast, the pandemic’s frontline workers included not only healthcare professionals, but Mixteco interpreters as well. Assisting hospital patients who primarily speak the Indigenous language of Mixteco, these interpreters found themselves on the frontlines when the community they serve faced rising COVID-19 cases.

Irebid Gilbert, a Cal Poly alumna, is the co-founder of Herencia Indigena, a patient advocacy and interpreter agency. After graduating in 2018 with a master’s degree in public policy, Gilbert decided that creating Herencia Indigena was something she needed to do, so she combined her knowledge, education and culture to do so.

Herencia Indigena is an agency that was created out of the need for Mixteco-speaking interpreters in hospitals. It started with a foundation of classes educating providers in the healthcare field three years ago.

“We know our patients are coming in with a ton of other hardships, we know they’re struggling with basic needs, we know they’re working fifty plus hours,” Gilbert said. “We decided to educate the providers so they understand where their patients are coming from.”

Herencia Indigena’s program trains trilingual translators who can help translate between Mixtec-speakers and their healthcare providers.

Without proper translation, Mixtec-speakers could be at risk of “misdiagnosis, excessive use and or misuse of resources, inability to obtain consent, hospital readmissions and, in severe cases, death,” according to Herencia Indigena’s website.

“Health care providers are unable to communicate with patients, and there are no qualified and trained interpreters to bridge that gap,” the website said.

They access patients through hospitals, community agencies and through their Mixteco COVID-19 hotline.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Gilbert said she knew that the Mixteco community was going to be hit hard because of poverty levels and because they often live in households with many family members.

Herencia Indigena has had on-site interpreters at hospitals throughout the Central Coast since May, according to Gilbert. Those interpreters had to quickly adapt to working with COVID-19 patients once the number of cases rose.

“From our perspective as health advocates, as community advocates, it was really scary because when everyone sheltered at home, we were expected to go in there and work alongside doctors,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert said the interpreters stayed safe by wearing personal protective gear and acted as if anyone they came in contact with could have COVID-19. She said that there was one instance where an interpreter quarantined because they suspected they could have been exposed, but other than that, her staff was able to stay safe working in the hospitals.

Due to their small staff of only 15 interpreters, Gilbert said it was even scarier since they didn’t have a large group to pull from in the case that an interpreter got sick.

The Mixteco interpreters were eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine when other healthcare workers received it. Gilbert said that with what is hopefully an end in sight for the pandemic, she is proud of the interpreters and what Herencia Indigena continues to provide the community.

“They were so scared in the beginning; there was so much uncertainty. They really took a chance on this and they did amazing, and that’s why we were able to grow,” Gilbert said of her staff, which grew from four interpreters to 15 over the past year.

Gilbert said she hopes that they can continue helping this often overlooked community on the Central Coast. She, and the team of interpreters, are from Indigenous backgrounds and have worked in the fields like most of the patients they work with. She said this helps them go beyond just being interpreters; they are patient advocates.

Gilbert said she hopes Herencia Indigena can build on the connections she and the interpreters have made working during the pandemic. She said she would like to see more Indigenous involvement in the healthcare field overall and hopes to inspire her own team of interpreters to pursue careers in healthcare.

“I want more people that look like us to be in these settings,” Gilbert said. “I think hiring people, giving them the skills, giving them that exposure, is really going to encourage them to try some of these things.”

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