When Elena Santiz-Collazo arrived at the Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital Family Birthing Center for the birth of her son, she was surprised to find a nurse who spoke the same indigenous Mayan language she spoke.
She soon learned she and her nurse hailed from the same small village in southern Mexico, more than 2,600 miles away.
Michele Schoon, RN, spent the first 13 years of her life in San Cristobal, Mexico, where her parents worked as missionaries.
Located near the Guatemalan border in the Central Highlands, it was there where she learned to speak the Mayan dialect of Tzotzil. The language is spoken exclusively by the indigenous Tzotzil Maya people in the Mexican state of Chiapas.
“In all my years of nursing, I’ve never encountered a patient who speaks this language,” Schoon said. “That’s how rare it is.”
A vernacular bond
While prepping for a C-section, Santiz-Collazo and Schoon started to make small talk. Speaking in Spanish, a common second language for Tzotzil Maya people, Schoon asked her where she originally lived.
“She told me it was a small village in southern Mexico that I probably had never heard of,” Schoon said. “She was very surprised that I grew up in the same village.”
The surprise quickly turned to shock when Santiz-Collazo, who now lives in Ludington, learned Schoon also speaks Tzotzil.
“Her eyes got as big as saucers and she said, ‘That’s not possible.’”
She then asked Schoon to prove it, so the nurse obliged and said good morning to her in Tzotzil.
“We both started laughing and that’s when the doctor came in,” Schoon recalled.
“The patient looked at her husband and said, ‘She does! She does!’” said Margaret Gustafson, MD, from Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital Obstetrics and Gynecology. “You should’ve seen her face. She was just so delighted.”
Speaking through an interpreter, Santiz-Collazo told Health Beat, “I didn’t believe her at first. Spanish, yes, but not Tzotzil. I told her, ‘You have blue eyes and blonde hair; you’re not supposed to speak that language.’”
‘All my nerves went away’
Schoon is often used as the primary obstetrics nurse for Spanish-speaking patients due to her fluency with the language.
“It made me happy to have someone in surgery with me who I could understand,” Santiz-Collazo said. “While in pre-op holding, I was cold, shivering and nervous. When I met Michele and we started talking about where we were from and the Mayan language, all the nerves went away.”
The couple’s son, Jonathan, arrived June 3 at 8:18 a.m., weighing 7 pounds, 8 ounces, and measuring 20 inches long. Santiz-Collazo was excited to introduce their healthy baby boy to friends and family, but almost felt as excited for them to meet her nurse.
“They were introducing me to all of their relatives,” Schoon said. “We’ve made a great connection. It makes it really special when you have that kind of a connection with a patient.”
Dr. Gustafson, who has been practicing medicine in Ludington for 31 years, said it may be one of her most memorable births.
“She was a fun patient to take care of,” Dr. Gustafson said with a smile. “She and Michele were able to form a special bond. Medically, it was a routine C-section. Socially, though, this ranks right up there among the most delightful things I’ve been part of during my career.”