CAMP ZAMA, Japan -- It is Yuko Sano’s job to help people throughout one of the most vulnerable and uncertain situations they may ever experience, and she could not be more proud of that fact.
Sano has worked for the last 14 years as a medical translator at Camp Zama’s BG Crawford F. Sams U.S. Army Health Clinic Japan, assisting English-speaking patients who must be transported to Japanese clinics and hospitals for treatment.
“I feel joy and fulfillment knowing my language skills and nursing knowledge helps Camp Zama patients who may feel at a loss in an overseas hospital,” Sano said. “I’m happy to be able to help ease their anxiety and stress, and to provide any support they may need.”
Sano is one of six translators assigned to U.S. Army Medical Department Activity – Japan, and one of two on the team with a nursing license. The team is on call 24 hours a day to assist with medical emergencies of any kind—a function that has been especially essential throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sano’s job entails more than just acting as translator between her patients and local medical staff. She and her team also help them prepare medical referral letters, schedule their appointments, and escort them to clinics and hospitals.
“I feel rewarded each time I am able to help patients and moreover, to be a part of the process of their health improving or when their treatment has a good outcome,” Sano said.
Being a translator for medical patients can sometimes be taxing for her, both mentally and physically, Sano said, especially when she has to convey bad news to patients or their families, including deaths, serious accidents and injuries, or complex illness diagnoses.
Sano tries to remain as neutral as possible in her work, but said she sometimes cannot help but become emotional because she truly cares about her patients.
David Ames, formerly assigned to Camp Zama, remembered being very nervous and unsure what to expect during his multiple stays at a Japanese hospital for treatment from 2010 through 2018.
Ames said Sano, who was his translator, could sense his nervousness but noted that she remained calm and patient, and kindly walked him through the entire process and answered every question he had.
“She really cared,” Ames said. “She was always very attentive to all of her patients’ needs.”
Sano sometimes helped several patients in the same day, Ames said, and he was amazed to see how professionally, calmly and friendly she handled each one of them.
“Translators can easily go unnoticed,” Ames said. “They are truly the quiet professional. I personally could not have [gotten through my hospital stay] without her.”
Kendell Clark, formerly assigned to Camp Zama, was also nervous and uncomfortable when first arriving at a Japanese hospital in 2016, but said that changed when he first saw Sano arrive “with a big smile on her face.”
“I knew then that I would be in the best of care,” said Clark.
Clark said Sano was a big help, not only with her translation assistance, but also for taking detailed medical notes and for making herself available to help him any time he needed.
“Medical translators like her are truly lifesavers,” Clark said.
Sano said she attributes her compassion and desire to help others to her own experiences in the past—one of which was when she attended college in Utah for two years after graduating high school in Japan.
Sano said she clearly remembers dealing with cultural differences every day and feeling stressed due to her limited English skills, which made even the act of taking a bus a challenging ordeal. Fortunately for her, there were strangers who recognized she was having a hard time and would often approach her and ask if she needed help.
“I was truly grateful every time I received help from random people because that greatly eased my anxiety being in a completely foreign culture,” Sano said. “It made my experience in the States memorable.”
Sano’s experiences there were so memorable, in fact, that she made a commitment from that day forward to offer assistance any time she saw foreigners struggling in her country.
After Sano returned to Japan, her grandmother became ill and her family began taking care of her at their home. It was a difficult experience for Sano, who said she felt unable to do anything for her grandmother but watch her suffer in pain.
“I felt completely powerless,” Sano said. “I really wanted to be able to help her.”
Sano eventually decided to quit her job and enroll in a three-year nursing school program, devoting “all [her] energy, time and passion to pursuing that goal.”
After earning her nursing certification and working at a hospital for a time, Sano said her desire to help foreigners in Japan was still stuck in the back of her mind. A few years later, she was hired for what she calls her “dream job” as a translator for MEDDAC-J.
“I truly feel I have discovered my true profession,” Sano said. “The Army gives me the opportunity to pay it forward every day.”