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Cultural navigator brings new level of support to international families

woman standing in atrium with bust of Danny Thomas, photos of cancer patients and numerous international flags

“The families appreciate our openness to learn. We always want to be respectful of different cultures and support them the best way we can.” Yulia Miller, lead cultural navigator at St. Jude.

Two balloons. At St. Jude, every patient receives the same number of balloons to celebrate birthdays and No More Chemo parties. This maintains consistency and avoids confusion, but it recently brought a question from a concerned parent.  

“Is my child OK?” 

When Yulia Miller, lead cultural navigator, received this question, she knew exactly why the Ukranian family was concerned. As a native of Ukraine and a former interpreter for St. Jude, Miller knew that in many cultures, the number two is considered bad luck. 

Miller, who is the first cultural navigator at St. Jude in the Department of Social Work, explains American customs to patient families and answers any questions that arise during their time here.  

“The families appreciate our openness to learn. We always want to be respectful of different cultures and support them the best way we can,” Miller said. 

As the hospital expands its global reach, Erica Sirrine, PhD, Social Work director, said cultural navigation is important in providing exceptional care for international families. 

“Culture is more than just the region in which you live or the language that you speak,” Sirrine said. “With a specific member of the care team focused on cultural support, we are going above and beyond to set the standard of care for the treatment of pediatric catastrophic diseases,” Sirrine said.  

Social Work recently added a second cultural navigator—Jessica Dominguez—to assist Spanish-speaking patients and families.

Since health care differs immensely among countries, Miller also helps families build trust with providers by explaining the standard of care at St. Jude. In several cultures, it’s forbidden to dispute a doctor’s opinion. 

“We explain to families that it’s not like that here. We want you to participate in your child’s care by asking questions and having open communication,” Miller said. 

Ultimately, Miller wants families to feel comfortable navigating the health care system on their own. She provides resources and helps orient them into life in Memphis and St. Jude.  

“I try to teach families more independence and empower them to verbalize concerns,” Miller said. “We try to make things as easy as possible for them.” 

In addition to assisting families at the hospital, a cultural navigator offers a unique level of support outside of the hospital walls. This includes helping caregivers get a driver’s license or going with family members to a doctor’s appointment.  

 Although Miller does not always speak the same language as the family, she makes every effort to ensure they feel respected and supported during their time here. Miller explains that it’s more about how you say something than the language you speak.  

 To help alleviate some of the stress of navigating a new city, Miller also welcomes families upon arrival and orients them into housing. Depending on a family’s level of need, she is with them from a few days to several weeks. However, she emphasizes that she is always available to help. 

“On a day when a patient or family feels overwhelmed, you can help make a difference and provide hope. Everything comes back to the overall well-being of the patient and family, not just curing the disease,” Miller said.