To be successful, the doctor-patient relationship requires clear communication above all else. When a doctor doesn’t speak the native tongue of a patient, translators are often called in to help, but because one’s health is an intimate and private matter, introducing a third party into a medical discussion is not an ideal solution.

For Linda Kantor, of Orange, Conn., these issues are more than theoretical. Kantor is a founder and vice president of the Board of Directors of Casa Otoñal (“Autumn House”), a campus-like complex of buildings dedicated to housing the elderly of New Haven’s Hispanic community. “We’ve found that when some of our elderly are at the hospital, many times they have to bring along a child or a grandchild as an interpreter,” she explains. “But it’s not ethically or medically a good idea to have an 8 year old in an Ob/Gyn clinic translating for a grandmother.” According to Kantor’s husband, Yale immunologist Fred S. Kantor, M.D., the Paul S. Beeson Professor of Medicine, even having the services of a professional translator has its limits. “As a physician, it’s wonderful to have a capable translator, but it’s not the same as having even rudimentary Spanish” when treating a Spanish-speaking patient, he says.

Michael Vlock, a Branford, Conn.-based executive and philanthropist who has known the Kantors since he was 10 years old—they were close friends of his parents—recently joined his wife, Karen Pritzker, in making a $250,000 gift to the School of Medicine to honor the couple’s lifetime of service to Yale and to New Haven. Vlock and Pritzker asked the couple to help choose how the money would be spent. “With this wonderful gift and its income, we didn’t want to sponsor an annual lecture or a prize,” says Fred Kantor. “Our task was to integrate our interests—medicine, the Hispanic community and the elderly.”

The result was a course in “medical Spanish” taught in Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Fitkin Amphitheatre last fall. The course drew 60 students and was taught in four sections, twice a week, by Tricia Walter, M.A., a lecturer in Yale’s Department of Latin American Studies. Fred Kantor, who took the course himself, says it has been a real boon to his practice of medicine. “I had no knowledge of Spanish at all, and even after one semester I found I could communicate better with the patients,” he says. “Their faces brighten when they realize that somebody is trying to communicate with them in their language.”

Vlock is pleased that his donation provided the foundation for an initiative that is so much in keeping with the Kantors’ varied commitments to the community. “Their ties to both the School of Medicine and to the Hispanic community are very deep,” Vlock says. “Their convictions as to the significance and potential lifesaving capacity of teaching medical Spanish were pretty persuasive, and Karen and I are thrilled to be able to empower them, given all that they’ve done for my family and for the community.”

Although elementary Spanish does not negate the need for a trained interpreter, Linda Kantor says that even a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish will make a difference to doctors and patients. “For physicians to at least have a modicum of Spanish, to be able to introduce themselves, to say ‘I hope you feel better,’ and to be able to ask some pertinent questions in Spanish,” she says, “will help to put both the patient and the physician more at ease, and lead to better medical practice.”