After losing both parents to COVID-19, the mayor’s sign-language interpreter knows her work is more important than ever
Sign language interpreters are trained to remain neutral in their message delivery.
When Mayor Quinton Lucas paused during his State of the City address to acknowledge and honor interpreter Michelle DeMartino for her work and resilience, it reminded her that she was human.
DeMartino had lost both of her parents to COVID-19 just days before. In that moment of recognition, she put her hands together and asked them for help.
“They knew how much providing equal access and equal opportunity meant to me,” DeMartino says. “In that moment I felt like I was going to lose it, but I stuck to my faith and I didn’t even realize it but I think you can see me looking up at one point, and I put my hands together and I prayed to my parents to help me get through that.”
DeMartino stepped into the role of interpreting for Mayor Lucas at the pandemic’s beginning a year ago after being a medical interpreter for the University of Kansas and major area hospitals for 10 years. She has deaf family and has always been drawn to sign language for as long as she can remember. She knew she wanted to be an interpreter as soon as she found out it was a possibility.
When DeMartino was asked to interpret for the mayor, she had never done her job on a TV screen before. As countrywide shutdowns began to occur, she decided to give it a try.
“I just kind of fell in love with it,” DeMartino says. “The mayor and the community and KU and everybody has just been so amazing in ensuring that the message is out there for everyone. And that really has been my motivation for this.”
DeMartino has worked to inform deaf and hard of hearing Kansas Citians about COVID-19 as it has progressed and affected the city in many ways for the past year. The year could be described in a lot of words, but she wouldn’t use the word “helpful” to describe the service she has provided throughout it.
“I think the word ‘help’ can be looked at in the wrong light because there’s nothing that can be fixed,” DeMartino says. “It’s more me providing a service to provide equality. And it’s truly been an honor to do that.”
As COVID-19 numbers rose, DeMartino began to see it firsthand as a frontline worker. She saw the mixed messaging that circulated around the virus and knew she wanted to help people understand how real it was. She had gathered a lot of knowledge about COVID-19 from her work through KU and the mayor’s office, but the desire for clarity grew even larger when the virus touched her own family.
DeMartino’s mother, Susan Barreca, died on Feb. 4 and the death of her father, Ralph Barreca Jr., followed five days later. DeMartino says her work in the past year helped prepare her with information about COVID-19 that she could apply to her own family.
The doctors and nurses who cared for her parents became like family too, DeMartino says. After their passing, she was inspired by the outpouring of support for her family and to see how much her parents’ lives affected others. She says that lately, she has seen the best in humanity.
“I’m always like, ‘why my parents? Why them?” DeMartino says. “But I have to think after seeing all this, maybe this was their purpose, as hard as it is because I selfishly want them back. Maybe it’s stories like this that are going to bring people back to each other.”
DeMartino was at the mayor’s side just a day after her father’s death to help deliver his message during his State of the City address. Mayor Lucas was astonished and impressed by her strength.
“On one of the toughest days of her life, she still wanted to deliver that service to the people of Kansas City,” Lucas says. “That to me is something that I will always remember and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen something quite like it.”
In a year where masks have placed an obstacle over lip-reading, some forms of communication for the deaf community have changed. As someone who is hard of hearing and also has deaf family, Lucas recognizes the work DeMartino has done to help the city create confidence in the city’s response to COVID-19 to both those who are hard of hearing and those who aren’t.
“She’s become a star,” Lucas says. “She connects in a way that I don’t think almost any interpreter, certainly in our region, does. I have been impressed by her ability to really communicate far beyond what her job itself entails.”
As the rollout of vaccination for COVID-19 continues, DeMartino’s message for Kansas Citians is that we will only get through the remainder of the pandemic together. The United States of America were not founded on individualism, she says; despite the exhaustion and frustration people feel right now, we have to continue working through the pandemic by coming together.
“I don’t want anybody to go through what my family has experienced,” DeMartino says. “I don’t want them to have that pain. And if I can do anything to help, that’s what I will do.”