Patients of Dr. Ernesto Torres were left scrambling for a new doctor after police arrested the Frederick pediatrician in May on sexual assault charges involving at least 12 patients.
For a subset of Torres’ patients, leaving his practice meant losing a doctor familiar with their culture and their native language, Spanish.
Frederick police arrested Torres first on May 7 after a grand jury indicted him on charges of rape and sexual assault involving a single patient. He posted bail, but was arrested again nearly two weeks later after he was indicted on 65 more counts involving 11 other patients.
Detectives are investigating additional cases, said Frederick County State’s Attorney’s Office spokesman Will Cockey.
At an initial bail review hearing, Torres, 68, voiced concerns about his patients, especially those who primarily speak Spanish, if he could not practice. Approximately two weeks later, a Frederick County Circuit Court judge ordered Torres to cease practicing while criminal charges were pending, leaving his patients looking for a new doctor — at least temporarily.
Torres’ attorney Richard Bricken said the doctor is more concerned about his patients than he is himself. Bricken spoke to The News-Post before the additional charges were filed against Torres.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of support for Dr. Torres coming from his patients,” Bricken said.
Pediatric and family medicine doctors around the county are accepting new patients, but not all of them provide a Spanish-speaking doctor.
Torres is a well-known pediatrician in the Latino community, said Dr. Julio Menocal, a family medicine physician in Frederick who is fluent in Spanish. Menocal, who accepts all Medicaid plans, said he is accepting patients.
“A lot of doctors in town are bilingual, but primary care, I’m not so sure there are that many,” Menocal said.
Calling around to pediatrician offices in the county reveals that while some practices do have at least one Spanish-speaking doctor, many rely on language lines and interpreters to see patients who might speak Spanish.
Menocal is one of the first doctors to come to mind when seeking a Spanish-speaking doctor. Menocal’s practice has 12 Spanish-speaking members on the staff of 20, and he serves many children of immigrants, he said. He recently hired a nurse practitioner who speaks Spanish.
Even if a patient speaks Spanish, it does not necessarily mean that the doctor they see will speak the same dialect. While Spanish is the common language, each country has its own slang or take on the language, just as American English differs from British English.
“The most important thing to realize is even though these are Hispanics, every country has a different set of slang and idioms that are unique to their cultures,” Menocal said. “And I think having the flexibility to understand what they mean by certain expressions is probably what Dr. Torres was striving at in stating that it’s better to have a Spanish-speaking [physician].”
Whether a patient seeks out a Spanish-speaking doctor is a personal choice, and where someone goes for medical services might depend on their insurance coverage. Even among medical professionals, there is no consensus on whether a patient who speaks primarily Spanish should seek out a doctor who speaks Spanish.
Ellyse Lopez Lamont, a nurse practitioner with Monocacy Health Partners Immediate Care, is bilingual. She was born in Puerto Rico.
When she speaks Spanish to a patient, she says the guard comes down. The patient is more comfortable and willing to speak with her. Medicine is personal, and being able to understand without going through interpretation can help foster a better relationship with the patient, especially in immediate care where the patient is coming in for a one-time visit.
“When a patient speaks to you directly, and there’s no in-between person, you get exactly what they are saying,” Lopez Lamont said. “I understand in their gestures, in the way they talk. I understand their mannerisms as I’m speaking to them.”
That’s not to say translation services are not effective, she said, but words can get lost in translation, especially if medical jargon is used. For example, a translator might translate the word cervical when a doctor is talking about the neck area, which might be too technical for some patients, she said.
But not all medical professionals agree. Dr. Jose Muniz, an immunologist and allergist in the county, said there is little difference between seeing a doctor fluent in Spanish and using an interpreter trained in medical language.
“If you have a medical interpreter — English, Spanish — oh, yes, they will be phenomenal for anybody because they are trained to do that very quickly,” Muniz said.
Having a doctor who speaks a patient’s primary language is not always important, but a doctor who understands the culture is, Menocal said.
Many of his patients on the Golden Mile do not have extended family to help with issues the children might have. So his practice becomes a de facto family, something Menocal encourages.
He asks that his patients and patients’ parents develop relationships with medical assistants and office staff so they feel comfortable asking questions. Patients and their families turn to his practice for information about vaccinations or dieting.
“They kind of rely on us for a lot of things, kind of to guide them through the system,” he said.
But like the Spanish language, the Latino community is an umbrella term. Each country has its own culture, Muniz said.
“It’s like English. Not all English-speaking countries have the same culture,” he said. “The people in New Zealand have [a] different [culture] than the one in Scotland. Here [it] is the same. The people in Buenos Aires, Argentina, have one culture, and the people in El Salvador have another culture. They have in common the language, and stop right there — nothing else in common.”
Lopez Lamont agreed. She speaks with the mannerisms and dialect of someone who is from Puerto Rico, which are similar to those of Cuba. And people from those areas light up when she treats them because they connect through language and culture.
But that applies only to those from Puerto Rico and, sometimes, Cuba.
Doctors accepting patients
Torres’ office and Torres’ head attorney declined to comment about where the office is referring patients. Torres posted bail and is on house arrest while awaiting trial.
Menocal’s practice on the Golden Mile accepts all medical assistance HMO plans, known as HMCO, whereas other offices might accept only one or two, he said.
His practice is also the only one in town to see babies before they get insured, he said.
Dr. James Lee, a pediatrician in New Market, is also accepting new patients, but the doctor does not speak Spanish, a receptionist said.
One practice patients of Torres might visit is Dr. Steven Alcuri. The Frederick doctor is a single pediatrician office like Torres’, practice manager Kim Mazziott said. Alcuri usually filled in for Torres when he was sick or on vacation.
Alcuri’s office is working with the office manager and staff at Torres’ office to get records of patients so that the transfer is as seamless as possible, Mazziott said.
“Just taking care of their needs, that’s our main priority, is to serve the community and the families, because this has been an extremely difficult ordeal for them,” she said. “And we’re just trying to make it as uncomplicated and simple as we can to keep them going.”
Mazziott blocked off time for Alcuri to see patients from Torres’ office. And they are trying to get Torres’ patients into appointments as quickly as they can, even striving to schedule well-visits on the same day they were scheduled with Torres.
Alcuri and his staff do not speak Spanish, but the practice uses interpreter services, most of which are approved by insurance, she said.