A single red thread


What does red signify in your culture? Red stones such as garnets and rubies were believed to have health-giving and disease preventing properties. In Rome, children wore red coral as a talisman to protect them from diseases, and in China, for similar reasons, children always wore a piece of red clothing. My dear mother, Elizabeth Ann and first-generation Italian, pinned a slip of red cloth to her brassiere till the day she died. Why? For protection from  il malocchio or evil eye.


Mom would pluck the eyebrows of our Romanian neighbor, Annie, at least once a month. When Annie showed up for her beauty regimen, the red cloth was in place. If not, mom claimed Annie gave her a headache. “Johnnyboy, you have to protect yourself against il malocchio.” Do you want to laugh? To this day I include red in my ensemble. My hearing aids perch on each ear, a shiny bright red. I’m covered.


This brings us to cultural brokering in the healthcare setting. Recently I had to assess a situation to decide if the patient’s life would be in danger. If a child drinks a few drops of water before surgery, would that effect a procedure? I knew that parents routinely receive instructions the day before any operation to stop all foods and liquids the night before.

A little one struggled last week with the hiccups while waiting for an adenoidectomy.  The mother reached in her bag, grabbed a syringe and proceeded to give her a drops of water with a syringe. Whoa. I asked her to stop and searched for a nurse to explain what happened. Miss Nurse asked “Did you give your daughter water? How much?” Mother reluctantly reached for the syringe to show how much. “No water!” admonished Miss Nurse.


The little one continued to hiccup. Once the nurse left and without missing a beat, mom pulled a single thread from her daughter’s anti-slip socks, twisted it into a ball and placed it on her daughter’s forehead. I inquired: “Why the red thread on her forehead?” “Oh, to get rid of her hiccups” mother replied.

I laughed aloud and remembered my dear mother. Red protected my mom without fail. Know what? From that point on till the surgical nurse carted the tyke into the operating room, no hiccup cropped up. So much for mainstream medicine.

Later Nurse Recovery Room explained the water ban. “If a patient has anything in the stomach before surgery, upon inserting the breathing tube a patient can aspirate or draw stomach fluids into the lungs”, a clear threat to a patient’s well-being. I repeated the story of mom’s home remedy. We chuckled.   

Have any readers encountered a similar cultural situation? Please write your comments below.

Published by The Interpreter Fellow

I am an Ohio State Certified Court Interpreter and Certified Healthcare Interpreter in Spanish. MA Translation from The Institute for Applied Linguistics at Kent State University. Currently I serve Akron Children's Hospital Pediatrics and local courts.

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thoughts on interpreting

Liam O'Dell

Freelance Journalist and Campaigner

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