A Love of Language, a Dream Deferred

November 3, 2010

In addition to working as an emergency room physician in Alaska, internist Stephanie A. Jaeger found time to become fluent in two languages and work as a translator in Magadan, Russia.

When I was 10 years old, my mother married a German immigrant. The following summer my younger sister and I flew to Rhode Island to visit his parents for six weeks. They lived in a large German-speaking community. I was amazed to hear toddlers speaking German, having thought everyone was born knowing only English.

One day, after I told one of my German-speaking friends that I thought liverwurst smelled and tasted like dog food, she immediately turned to my step-grandmother and repeated my comment in German. I felt mortified. I resolved to learn German myself, and after listening to the language for only a few weeks, I was able to understand my step-grandmother without the help of friends.

My interest in foreign languages continued into my adolescence. In our small high school, the only foreign languages offered were Latin and French. I took them both and did well. I asked my teacher what kind of career, if any, was possible if one knew a foreign language. She thought for a long time. The puzzled look on her face told me that no one had asked her this before. Most students felt Latin and French were just subjects they had to suffer through in order to graduate.

"A United Nations translator," my teacher finally said.

Although I had been considering becoming a nurse since before age 5, I allowed myself to dream about going to the U.N. and translating for the president of France as he addressed the general assembly.

After finishing my sophomore year in high school, becoming a translator began to sound like a real career choice. My stepfather arranged for me to live in Germany with his cousin and her family during my junior year of high school. After a few months in German public school, I became almost fluent.

In the German gymnasium (college-preparatory high school) I was challenged intellectually. German schools stressed academics. In the 1960s, there were no sports or extracurricular activities. We attended school on Saturdays, and Sunday was our only day off. In class, discipline was strictly enforced. Five or more hours of homework each evening was the normal amount - less was a miracle or a misunderstanding about the assignment.

At the beginning of each class, we were expected to stand. The teacher addressed us with, "Guten Morgen Schueler!" ("Good morning students!")

We responded "Guten Morgen Herr Mueller!" ("Good morning Mr. Mueller!"), and continued to stand until the teacher motioned for us to sit down. If we sat before he gave us permission, we would have to stand again and repeat our greetings.

However, it was during my time in Germany that I changed my mind about becoming a translator. The father of the family with whom I lived was a general practice physician. He let me work in the lab at his office and took me on house calls to see patients. In the evenings, I traveled with him to villages where as many as 20 people gathered in one room of a farmhouse to see him.

Herr Doktor Jorns, as his patients called him, taught me physical diagnosis and the names and treatments of many diseases. I regularly heard heart murmurs, rales, and wheezes with his stethoscope. In part because of his willingness to be a mentor, I decided that medicine was my true calling. Unlike America, Germany encouraged women to become doctors rather than trying to restrict them to nursing.

On my return to America, I continued to study hard in school and went on to college, then medical school, internship, and residency. I worked as a general practitioner, internist, and emergency room physician in Alaska. But I never completely gave up my dream of being a translator.

In 1990 at the age of 40, I was severely injured in an automobile accident that kept me at home for nine months. In my boredom and isolation, studying Russian at the local college helped me maintain my sanity. After returning to work as a physician, I dreamed about a second career translating medical information from English into Russian.

Finally, in 1997, I made the decision to turn my dream into a reality. I flew to Magadan, Russia, where I helped train a board of directors who were establishing a local women's health center. I also continued to study Russian at the university in Magadan.

In 2000, I started working as an editor and stylist (a proofreader who also rearranges text to make it sound more like English) at a Russian scientific journal publishing house in Moscow. I chose to work in the publishing house because the job didn't involve the transfer of licensure that practicing medicine abroad required. I also wanted a break from medicine after years spent working in emergency rooms and urgent care centers.

Also, working as an intern in the publishing house was much more profitable than working as a doctor in Moscow. Russian doctors make $200/month whereas English-speaking editors and stylists can make as much as $1,000/month. In Russian culture, language skills are valued more than medical knowledge.

But after seven months in the publishing house, I decided to return to America and medicine. Terrorist attacks by Chechen rebels were increasing daily in Russia. I was beginning to fear for my safety and to miss practicing medicine in America with its much bigger salary.

So, in a way, I achieved both my career goals. I became fluent in two foreign languages, worked as a translator of scientific journals in Russia, and practiced medicine as a physician for more than 30 years. Looking back on my high school teacher's advice, I realize there are many things one can do with foreign languages, not just become a translator at the United Nations.

I am retired from medicine now. And as I wonder what I will do next, I find myself thinking about learning Spanish.

Stephanie A. Jaeger, MD, is a retired internist, family practitioner, and emergency room physician. She lives in Anchorage, Alaska, and writes as a hobby.

This essay was contributed as part of the November 2010 Physician Writer Search topic "The career I would have had if I hadn't become a doctor."