Breaking down the language barrier… Dr. Contreras looking to serve the growing Hispanic population

Published 5:25 pm Thursday, March 11, 2021

Dr. Danny Smith, the owner of Physical Therapy Services, P.A. in Elizabethton has always tried to stay on the cutting edge of new technology and procedures to help the residents of Carter County and the surrounding area.

And while his most recent move didn’t involve any fast-breaking technological revelations, Smith more than likely opened the door to a whole different clientele when he hired Dr. Sylvester Contreras to the staff at Physical Therapy Services.

What makes Dr. Contreras so special is that as a child his first language was Spanish and didn’t learn English until the third grade so if he works with patients here in Carter County he is able to speak English but when he goes back home to Irving, Texas he speaks Spanish with his mother and father who are both from Mexico and moved to the United States where Contreras was born.

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With the bilingual ability, Dr. Contreras has the ability to span the gap between the growing Hispanic population in Carter County and the surrounding region – something that in the past has created issues for Hispanic patients in trying to get the needed treatment they needed due to things being dropped when speaking to a doctor via a language translation program.

Prior to becoming a physician, Contreras was very active in competitive soccer in his home state of Texas.

“I started playing when I was four years old,” said Contreras. “Coming from a Hispanic family, soccer to us is what football is to the Cyclone community. I played in a recreational league up until around sixth grade and that was when I started to play Select Soccer and a little bit of travel ball.

“Within one to two years I was scouted by the Olympic Development Program in North Texas and basically what you do is try out for the state team and since Texas is so big they split it into a North Texas team and a South Texas team.

“I made that team and they split it into three parts – the A team, B team, and C team and I made the A team for the Olympic Development Team.”

Contreras described the team as a stepping stone where players are sent to certain camps to compete against players from 12 Southwestern states where 25 of the best players are selected from those teams of which Contreras was one of the players.

“I was then picked for the selecting pool of 100 players for the U-14 US National team, Unfortunately, I was never selected to go play for the team.”

In high school, Contreras played for the Dallas Texans all four years that opened the door for him to receive a soccer scholarship to Midwestern State University where he received his B.S. in Biology in 2016.

He decided to take a year off after graduating before ending up at East Tennessee State University where he decided to enter into the study of Physical Therapy.

Contreras had experienced Physical Therapy at different stages in his life.

“My mother, unfortunately, had lung cancer when she was 41-years old,” said Contreras. “Just seeing her going through the process of getting physical therapy to help her out was really rewarding to see.

“I also have experienced first-hand physical therapy when I tore my ACL twice. Funny enough, my second one occurred here on the soccer field over at Unicoi County and I ended up doing all my ACL rehab in this clinic before I even knew I was going to do an internship here or even work here.

“I always knew I wanted to do something in the medical field but also stay close to sports so when I decided to do something in life Physical Therapy was the perfect bridge to be able to do that.”

While during his internship with Physical Therapy Services, he had no idea what lied ahead as he was on his last week of the internship when he was offered a position by Smith to stay on at the clinic.

He graduated from the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program at ETSU in December of 2020 with high honors including the 2020 Outstanding Student Award.

Contreras is also a member of the Alpha Eta Society and participated in the Interprofessional Education Program at ETSU.

He was asked how he felt he would be able to break down some of the barriers experienced by the Hispanic community in Carter County and the surrounding areas.

“Whenever I go and eat at some of the local restaurants I speak to people about where they go for medical services when they get hurt or injured,” stated Contreras.

“They talk about where they go but they speak of various pitfalls within the system for them as far as they have to speak to a translator through a Skype screen or a video camera that is nowhere in this area and often a lot of things get lost in translation.

“It can be very frustrating for someone whose primary language isn’t English,” Contreras explained. “Just being within the community and seeing how Hispanic pockets are starting to grow and speaking with providers and finding there aren’t many Spanish providers in the area.

“I think that me being here and being a voice or someone to communicate with even if it’s not for physical therapy but even if it’s for, “hey I have this going on and I don’t know who to communicate with – can you help me or just lead me in the right direction?

“I think just being a bridge for the Tri-Cities Hispanic people is what my goal is and something I can do for everyone here. And not just for the Hispanic community but for everyone in general, I hope to close that language barrier.”

Contreras admitted that even though the language barrier is a factor for the Hispanic community, a lack of knowledge and the lack of understanding on where the Hispanic community can get services in an area they live in and are unfamiliar with is even a larger concern.

They also don’t understand what physical therapy is and what it can do for them.

All of these factors led to a daunting task for the Hispanic population to work through.