Future DO

How I bridge 2 worlds as a deaf medical student

Growing up as a deaf person has given me unique insights into patient care, which I hope to incorporate into my practice when I’m a physician.

I was born profoundly deaf in both ears, which means I could only hear sound above 95 decibels. Without hearing aids, I could hear extremely loud sounds, such as a plane taking off or a train going by, only if I was near them. With hearing aids, I could hear sound at 40 decibels and up, so I could understand one-on-one conversations as long as there was no background noise, the person didn’t mumble and I could see his or her mouth clearly.

Before starting medical school, I got a cochlear implant, which helps me hear so much more than I could before. When I listen to music now, I can hear all the different sounds rather than one static sound, and it’s much easier to differentiate between the instruments. Understanding speech has also become much easier. I now communicate orally with hearing people and via sign language with deaf people. However, I am still deaf, and there are still times when I am unable to understand what people are saying, such as group settings where there’s a lot of ambient noise.

I chose osteopathic medicine because I heard from many patients who spoke highly of DOs, and the osteopathic philosophy resonated with me as well. I strongly believe in treating the person as a whole and that lifestyle factors can dramatically affect a person’s health. Ultimately, I hope to become an obstetrician-gynecologist. I’d like my practice to include caring for deaf patients—some deaf people have very little health literacy due to communication barriers growing up, which is something I hope to combat.

Culture and communication

Growing up as a deaf person has given me insights I hope to incorporate in my future practice as a physician. The first is the importance of maintaining eye contact during conversations. That’s not only because it helps me lip-read and understand what’s being said; eye contact shows that you are truly listening to the other person. It shows respect.

Secondly, because of growing up in the deaf culture, I’m very aware that all cultures are different. Physicians may not encounter deaf patients frequently, but they will definitely care for patients who have special needs when receiving medical care, such as a disability or an interpreter if English isn’t their primary language. As a patient, I’ve learned that I need to speak up about my needs, because sometimes people just are not aware. As a physician, I’ll know to ask patients what they need.

Victoria MacPherson, OMS II (center), attends the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, as do Victoria Gordon, OMS II, (left) and Helen Lesser, OMS II (right). (Photo provided by Victoria MacPherson)

Tips for physicians

Physicians should keep in mind that American Sign Language is its own language, so written English doesn’t automatically translate to ASL. A deaf person who uses exclusively ASL and is not fluent in English might have trouble understanding written text, which is why some patients prefer to use an interpreter.

At the end of the visit, I appreciate being asked to repeat back my treatment plan so my physician can be sure I fully understand what was said. Receiving a written copy of my doctor’s recommendations is also very helpful—that’s probably true for any patient, not only those who are deaf.

If you’re unsure how to communicate with a patient who is deaf, or anyone with a disability, just ask! I suggest language such as, “I believe in offering top-notch accessible care. Do you need any special accommodations?” Then let the patients explain to you what they need, because they are the experts on themselves.

2 comments

  1. Congratulations, Victoria! As you progress thru your clinical rotations there will be many obstacles. Persevere and you will become a great physician. I should know, I am a Deaf pathologist and medical educator DMU-COMS ’87.

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