Elder has a big heart and loves many things—namely his family, friends, the Incredible Hulk and the New York Yankees. You can usually find the eight-year-old in his inpatient room cracking jokes and laughing during therapy sessions, or donning a Yankees tee shirt while dancing to reggaeton music with his parents. It is this vibrant energy and zest for life that got him the nickname “Elder Flow”, a fitting description for a child able to face any obstacle in his path.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Elder was a healthy, active boy until two years ago when he began experiencing worsening headaches. Upon examination, Elder was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, an accumulation of fluid in the brain, caused by a tumor. To relieve the pressure, the excess cerebrospinal fluid was drained, which enabled Elder to return to school and sports.
Last year, Elder’s family traveled to New York to visit family and experience other “firsts” like seeing snow and a Yankees game, but they never made it to the stadium.
Elder was rushed to a Manhattan hospital after developing more painful headaches and vomiting. He underwent complicated surgery on his existing tumor that resulted in significant complications, including a brain hemorrhage and two cardiac arrests.
“Afterwards, he was a different child; intubated, on multiple medications, with a gastrostomy tube. They even removed part of his skull to try and help,” said Glenys, Elder’s mother.
Each new surgery brought a new surprise.”
Elder’s medical team recommended intensive rehabilitation to address the paralysis to the right side of his body, loss of vision, speech, and the ability to eat and walk. The family selected Blythedale Children’s Hospital for their son. He was admitted in May 2019 to the multidisciplinary Brain Injury Treatment Program, the only dedicated post-acute pediatric brain injury unit in New York State.
“When we arrived he couldn’t do anything; he was in a semi-vegetative state,” said Glenys. "Little by little and month by month, we saw his recuperation because of his hard work, but it’s been a difficult process.”
Elder was briefly discharged to a Manhattan hospital in the summer for further treatment of his brain tumor, including radiation, but was later readmitted to Blythedale in August to resume comprehensive speech, occupational, physical and aquatic therapies.
“He started talking, having a conversation, chewing and swallowing his own food, even moving around and walking. We did not expect that from him,” said Elder’s mom. "We’re very satisfied with Elder’s progress and the services at Blythedale.”
One service the family frequently utilized is the Hospital’s free 24/7 on-site language translation service. When Elder and his parents arrived at Blythedale, they only spoke Spanish, so communicating with clinicians and personnel was a challenge.
“There’s nothing more tragic then having a sick baby, son or daughter and having a language barrier,” said Monica Cerwinka, Blythedale volunteer-turned-nationally certified medical interpreter. "I’ve been able to help Elder’s family since they arrived at Blythedale because I know they’re in a country that isn’t theirs."
This openness to connect has been the catalyst of a personal bond formed between Monica and Elder’s parents.
“We have a very good relationship with her because she cares a lot about Elder’s situation and makes us feel comfortable with a confidential healthcare process,” said Glenys.
Monica’s passion for helping others in the healthcare field began many years ago.
She was born in Mexico, from German family, where she was raised with both cultures and learned to speak three languages (Spanish, German and English). During her youth, Monica harnessed this skill and volunteered with patients in remote areas of Mexico to interpret Spanish for German and American doctors. She later received her business degree and began training doctors on medical equipment, in addition to becoming a paramedic and children’s hospital volunteer in Mexico.
When Monica found her way to Blythedale last year, she had a wealth of experience and expertise in translating Spanish while also supporting patients, parents and medical staff.
“I learned how to behave in a hospital environment, be objective and not let my emotions get too involved,” said Monica. "It all added up, so I had a lot to bring to the plate when I got here.”
Monica hit the ground running from the moment she first walked through the doors. She identified a need for a certified medical interpreter that would be able to fill the unforeseen gap between Spanish-speaking families and English-speaking clinicians.
Blythedale researched, supported and facilitated the request to break this language barrier. To accomplish this, Monica volunteered to take a medical interpreter certification test, recognized by the Joint Commission. The test consisted of responding to various hospital situations, from informal greetings to emergencies, all in different Spanish-speaking levels. She passed and became the first person with this new role at Blythedale.
“After I received the certification, I was ready, but anxious to start everything because I knew I could accomplish a lot,” said Monica.
This is more than just translating. It’s knowing how to listen, how to support and how to make Spanish-speaking families feel more a part of the community in very difficult situations.”
This personal touch has become a critical piece of the puzzle in really helping patients and parents understand more about their medical journey.
“We have found that with Monica, her physical presence enhances the communication experience for our Spanish-speaking patients and families,” Susan Murray, LCSW, Blythedale’s Vice President, Patient/Family Experience, Clinical Outreach, and Care Coordination. “They trust and feel comfortable with her, and therefore share more information with her about their worries, concerns, and questions than with someone not familiar to them. "Monica has enhanced our ability to provide these families with exceptional care.”
Monica is not only able to build bridges with parents, but also clinicians and other personnel. She translates during interdisciplinary meetings, patient therapy sessions, and for dozens of clinicians, personnel and parents. Many times, she is simply acting as a shoulder to lean on when the emotional baggage becomes too much for one person. “The language barrier is not only frustrating for the families, but also for the medical staff because it’s important that they know the families are aware of what’s going on with their children,” said Monica.
In situations where Monica is unavailable, portable tablets are located throughout the Hospital to translate any language. They can be easily be moved to patient’s bedside, a meeting or therapy session to allow an interpreter to become a virtual part of the interaction.
As Elder continues pushing himself to relearn how to hit and throw a baseball, kick a soccer ball or navigate stairs, his parents can take comfort in knowing that their needs and wants for their son are being communicated and met.
“We know his medical recovery will be long, but we want him to be as normal as he can possibly be,” said Elder’s mom.
The last thing you can do is lose hope.”
“These children have difficult circumstances, but Blythedale is a very special, very family-oriented place,” said Monica. “Everyone here works together toward one goal—for the child to eventually go home.”