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Ken Holmen, MD
President and CEO

Habla Español? Third-Year Medical Student Matt Cabrera Svendsen Does.

Published in Medical Students

Author: Staff

Third-year medical student Matt Cabrera Svendsen was working on his master of public health degree when he volunteered his time at the Phillips Neighborhood Clinic in Minneapolis. Many of his patients spoke Spanish, but he did not. He quickly realized that no matter how much medical knowledge he had, language barriers made it difficult for him to help his patients. So he decided to do something about it.

“The bottom line is that I want to help people and that requires understanding them—knowing where that person is from and how they are influenced by their family, friends, attitudes and surroundings,” Matt said. “I obviously could not learn every language, but learning Spanish was a small step toward bridging that gap.”

Learning Spanish

His earliest exposure to Spanish came from Sesame Street when he learned to count to ten. He could order food in Spanish during high school and had many friends in college whose families spoke the language. But his experiences at the clinic in Minneapolis made him realize how important it was to really learn how to speak the Spanish language. Matt decided to study it at a language school in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, where he not only learned to speak Spanish, but met his future wife.

Matt Cabrera Svendsen, Third Year Medical Student at ACMC-Willmar with wife Yessi in Guatemala.

Matt Cabrera Svendsen, Third Year Medical Student at ACMC-Willmar with wife Yessi in Guatemala

“It was not always easy, but I was committed to learning Spanish in order to help future patients. While I was learning, I needed someone who would speak Spanish with me. My teacher introduced me to her friend Yessi, who let me practice with her. She must have realized that I needed a lot of practice,” he joked.

When he and Yessi became husband and wife, the couple did things differently than dictated by tradition in Guatemala and in the United States. They chose to take each other’s last names.

“We uniquely combined our last names as a way to celebrate the new family we were creating. If I had grown up in Guatemala, I would have been named Matt Svendsen Deyo, using my father’s then my mother’s last names. In the U.S., Guatemalan men do not change their names when they marry. Guatemalan women traditionally keep their father’s name and add their husband’s name to it. So Yessi’s married name would be Cabrera de Svendsen. Our children would have the name Svendsen Cabrera. Though we often get questioned about our last name here in the U.S., we get just as many questions in Guatemala. With Cabrera Svendsen, we can be incorrect everywhere,” he laughed.

From Guatemala to ACMC

It was his interest in Spanish that led him to his third-year rotations at ACMC. During his first and second years of medical school, Matt participated in the University of Minnesota’s Rural Medical Scholars Program (RMSP). He was placed with Dr. Alan Olson at ACMC in Redwood Falls. It was during this time that he learned about the many Latino and Somali families in Willmar, and he knew he wanted to spend his third-year medical rotations in Willmar.

“I was really excited to be able to work with patients from different cultural backgrounds,” he said. “So far it has been a great experience for me. Working with the patients and all of the doctors and staff here has taught me more than I imagined it would. I am eternally grateful to everyone who is helping me get this hands-on education that will help me become a better doctor one day. Every step I have taken so far is a stepping stone to becoming the kind of doctor I want to be.”

When it comes right down to it, Matt just wants to do his part to create a better experience for his patients.

“My goal is to be able to make my patients feel comfortable, to feel that I understand where they are coming from no matter where they come from,” Matt said. “Sometimes it is as simple as walking into an exam room and saying, ‘Me llamo Matt. Hablo Español.’”