Former singer finds new voice helping others battle cancer
Ruben Gonzalez-Crespo once dreamed of becoming an opera singer like his father.
It was his father’s singing career that led the family to move from Puerto Rico to Chapel Hill in 1984. They came to visit a friend who had studied piano at the Julliard School in New York City and had served as his father’s accompanist.
But the family liked Chapel Hill so much they stayed. Gonzalez-Crespo, who was then 24, single and still living with his parents, spoke so little English that when he was in public he chose not to speak at all.
“When we were at gatherings where my father was singing his music, people would ask him if I was mute because I would stay silent because I was afraid to make a mistake,” Gonzalez-Crespo said.
He looks back on those days and laughs, especially given the amount of talking he has done since. For the past decade, Gonzalez-Crespo has served as a Spanish interpreter at UNC Hospitals, most recently at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and the N.C. Cancer Hospital.
The quality of his work earned Gonzalez-Crespo a C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award this year.
That brings a smile to his face, too, because what began as a job has turned into the lifelong calling that he once thought singing opera would be.
Gonzalez-Crespo was a tenor, like his father, and expected to follow in his footsteps when he enrolled in the School of Music at DePaul University in 1989. A year later, he returned to Puerto Rico to study at the Conservatory of Music.
He never completed his degree in Puerto Rico. Instead, he got married. When he returned with his wife to Chapel Hill, finding a job was foremost on his mind. In January 1993, he began working at the School of Medicine.
In 2001, he transferred to UNC Hospitals to work as a Spanish interpreter. It was a relatively new position at the time – UNC Hospitals did not hire Spanish interpreters until 1998. The hospital now has more than 30 Spanish interpreters – evidence of the state’s growing Hispanic population and the hospital’s commitment to service.
Gonzalez-Crespo worked at the hospital until 2008 when the opportunity arose to interpret for clinical research patients at UNC Lineberger.
UNC Lineberger is one of only 40 comprehensive cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute – a distinction that also mandates including minority groups in clinical trials, Gonzalez-Crespo said.
When he talks to patients about joining a clinical trial, he tells them about the risks and the opportunities, and explains that there are no guarantees – that sometimes, even with the best treatment, the cancer wins.
As recruitment coordinator Shantae McLean noted in her nominating letter, Gonzalez-Crespo’s role goes far beyond interpreting. He has become a liaison between the Hispanic community and UNC Lineberger and has played an integral role in increasing Hispanic patients’ enrollment in research.
“The majority of these patients come from rural Central and South America, and in those areas, if there is a doctor, there is one doctor who takes care of everything,” Gonzalez-Crespo said.
“When they come here to this humungous health-care system, they are totally lost. They don’t understand why, if this person is a doctor, he can’t take care of every problem they have. They can’t understand why they have to be sent to a specialist. That’s where I come in,” he said.
“I am pretty much with these patients from the time they enter the clinic to the time they go home that day.”
A deeply personal business
Over time, the relationship Gonzalez-Crespo develops with patients turns into a deep bond, and the trust he earns often leads to being asked for advice on almost anything. That is all right with him, too.
“They call me for whatever they need, whether it is a dentist or how to apply for a job,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me. It gives me pleasure to be able to help them with their needs any time I can.
“I know what they are going through because I went through it myself when I first came here and didn’t speak English.”
The work is very rewarding, Gonzalez-Crespo said.
“I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world. It is an honor to serve this community that is very much in need,” he said.
There are many stories to tell, but Gonzalez-Crespo keeps them to himself. It is not only a private business, he said, but an intensely personal one.
“You get to see these people about every day, and I get very much involved with them,” he said. “I feel everything that they are feeling.
“You get to learn about their family, about where they came from and what all they have been through. It becomes personal.”
As heart wrenching as it can be, Gonzalez-Crespo maintains the relationship with all his patients throughout the course of their journeys, no matter what direction that ultimately takes.
“Sometimes, when they are in their final hours, I go to their room to say goodbye,” Gonzalez-Crespo said. “Some people don’t like doing that. I am very humble and very sincere when I do that, but I feel it is something I need to do.”
At that point, he said, they are no longer patients. They are family.