Social worker Maria Carvalho, LICSW, has a life-long passion for bridging cultural gaps. She was born in Portugal, spent time in Angola and then, when her parents' adventuresome spirits subsided, moved to Somerville, Mass., when she was 10.
Like many immigrant children, she learned English more quickly than the rest of her family. "I did a lot of translating for my family at doctors' appointments and when dealing with many facets of the outside world," she says.
With her family's struggle with language barriers fresh in mind, Carvalho decided to make a career leap from student teaching when a bilingual social worker position opened at a Cambridge hospital. "Right away, I saw what it difference it made to have bilingual staff in hospitals to directly communicate with patients," she says. Soon, Carvalho got an internship at Children's Hospital Boston and joined the Social Work team. It was a good fit—one that's lasted for 24 years. Today, Carvalho coordinates clinical social work services for Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking families.
She has been instrumental in helping families navigate the health care system by clarifying the cultural differences they'll encounter and explaining what services are available to them. "Each patient will have a different circumstance and I do what I can to make it easy for them, whether it's through emotional support, connecting them to resources or brainstorming what we can do to make their stay better," she says.
Recently, she worked with a non-English-speaking family that needed to gain guardianship of their child when she turned 18, due to her cognitive impairments. They had been floundering in a paperwork-heavy process they didn't understand and used the help of Carvalho and a support group run by her co-worker, Olga Perez, LCSW, which assists Spanish-speaking parents of patients with complex medical needs. "Illness is one of life's biggest stressors, and when I can sit with a family and listen to their fears, worries and their story and hear their needs—that's powerful," she says.
On a bigger scale, Carvalho has contributed to the cultural competency of the hospital as a member of the Diversity Committee. In the mid-1990s, she helped write Honoring Patient Preferences, a guide to help staff cater to the varying traditions, religions and needs of our multicultural patients. She also took part in founding Children's annual Latino Heritage Celebration. "I love everything about Latino culture, I love the music, the people and the food," she says.
Carvalho's enthusiasm for world cultures carries over into her home life. Not only is her own background diverse, but her husband is an Indian Muslim who grew up in Africa. Their children celebrate both cultures. "It's important to make sure our heritage survives and culture allows expression," she says. "This adds dimension to our society.¨›Learning and understanding other cultures up close and learning about the ways people live and think help us all remain connected."