How a Physical Therapist Brings Relief to Hillsborough's Spanish-Speaking Community

September 14, 2021
Marianela Daher

In the Outpatient Rehab Clinic at St. Joseph's Hospital, Marianela Daher instructed her patient to stand sideways at the cable machine and lift her arm forwards.

"Mira hacia el espejo," she said. Look towards the mirror. 

Her patient was a Dominican-born certified nursing assistant at a local nursing home, where her work with elderly residents put strain on her shoulder. A month before, she could barely lift her arm to comb her hair. Now, the patient cycled through her therapy session with apparent ease.

"Muy bien," Marianela says, encouraging her progress.

For nearly 25 years, Marianela has served as a physical therapist (PT) at BayCare. She arrived in Tampa Bay soon after graduating with her master's degree in physiology and kinesiology from the University of Buenos Aires in her home country of Argentina and started as a PT at Morton Plant Mease in 1996. She transferred to St. Joseph's Hospital in 1999, working on various inpatient floors before joining the outpatient team. 

At the time, Marianela was the Outpatient Rehab's only Spanish-speaking PT. Years before smartphone apps made fast and reliable translations, she helped make health care more equitable for Hillsborough's Spanish-speaking community.

When she first joined the hospital, Marianela brought quick relief to many patients and therapists, some of whom relied on family members to translate and others who turned to English-Spanish dictionaries for help communicating.

"We didn't have a Google translator or anything like that at the time," Marianela said. "It was a lot of satisfaction for me to be the only Spanish speaker on the rehabilitation team. But it was a little overwhelming too because all the Spanish-speaking patients wanted to see the Spanish-speaking physical therapist."

Marianela Daher

Today, St. Joseph's Hospital's Outpatient Rehab has two additional Spanish-speaking PT team members who help Marianela serve the Spanish-speaking community. All BayCare facilities also offer real-time translation services for 40 languages through the Stratus platform.

Clear communication is key for health care. For PTs, it can help them understand their patients' pains and discomforts, while ensuring patients understand instructions and perform exercises properly. While "pointing and pantomiming" can help in a pinch, Marianela said verbal communication builds a deeper bond with patients.

"We deal with a lot of pain related issues in our profession," she said. "When you see a patient, they aren't at their happiest or feeling their best. They're emotionally effected, sometimes with decades of pain. So, it's very rewarding for a patient to be able to express what they feel and have someone understand their pain."

As a Hispanic team member treating many Hispanic patients, Marianela said their connection also contributes to better trust, compliance and improved clinical outcomes. 

"Patients may trust you a little more when they feel like they can relate to you through things like culture and language," she said. "A lot about the connection you make with your patients is not just about what you know -- it's about whether you empathize with what the patient is feeling. Compliance increases if the patient knows that you clearly understand what they are feeling."

Even after 25 years, Marianela is committed to improving her practice. For the past year, she has attended monthly seminars to expand her knowledge base and earn a certification to treat patients suffering from pelvic floor muscle pains and dysfunctions.

Her dedication has earned recognition from others. In July 2021, Marianela was named a Team Member of the Month at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

Marianela is commitment to serving patients. That’s why she and BayCare are a perfect fit.

"I'm always thankful for BayCare's sensitivity to cultural differences" she said. "BayCare really cares about meeting the customer needs."  

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