What's it like being a hearing impaired medical student?
The room is filled with sounds of machines, beeping, whirring, and loud breathing through plastic tubes. Like the waste of-space medical student I am, I stand well behind the operating urologist, who was skilfully removing a bladder tumour from the unconscious patient on the operating table. She had asked me if I wanted to perform the post-operation catheterisation procedure (a procedure where you insert a flexible tube into the urethra, the hole that you pee out of, up into the bladder and attach a bag at the other end to collect all the urine).
I excitedly agreed and proceeded to gain consent from the patient. This would be the first time I’d ever catheterised a real person! The thought of sticking a tube into someone’s penis was nerve-racking and almost painful as I watch the urologist force all sorts of instruments down the urethra, I cringed and felt sympathy pains.
There I stand, patiently waiting to be called, gloved and gowned aseptically, as you should before entering a surgical environment; being careful to not touch anything and be out of everyone’s way.
The theatre nurses turn to look at me.
I looked at the wall behind me, maybe they were looking at the time?
A few seconds later, one of the nurses nudge me.
Whoops, did I accidentally touch the table? Why are they all staring at me?
I hear the urologist mumbling something, and then she then swivelled on her chair 180 degrees to face me.
“Earth to Yzobelle??? Stop daydreaming and grab the catheter”, she says clearly becoming impatient.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you calling me”, I reply.
I probably appear this way to most of the doctors I meet. A confused, dazed, daydreamer.
In the same theatre, I talk with the consultant, a soft-spoken older man with a deep voice. He’s helpfully sharing his experiences of surgical training with me — but over the noises of machines and negative pressure ventilation — I can’t hear these valuable stories for the life of me. I know I should say something, but what is the point? He can’t change the pitch of his voice, and even if he tried to speak more clearly, I would still struggle.
So I sit there, smiling, pretending to listen; giving him all the non-verbal queues and ‘oh wows’ and ‘that sounds interesting’ to make him think I was actively listening. I like to think of this as a good deed, I was sparing him the trouble of repeating himself constantly.
I’ve found this to be a common occurrence during medical school, I subconsciously pretend to hear what people say to me, just to save the awkwardness of having to navigate a conversation around my hearing-loss. I’ve become a master at pretending to listen.
There were numerous times I sat in lectures or seminars unable to hear what the speaker was saying. There was one particular lecture I attended which affirmed my suspicions that I may have a problem.
Right at the beginning of my second year. It was one of the first haematology lectures, carried out by the lead consultant haematologist ( a specialist doctor in blood), and I just couldn’t follow.
The lecture was fast-paced, she was walking around the room asking questions, writing stuff on the whiteboard in a pen that had run out of ink in illegible ‘doctor handwriting’ — I didn’t know what the hell was going on.
After the lecture, I approached her to clarify some of the things I had missed. I asked if she could prepare more visual aids for the lecture next time, because I was struggling to hear her, to which she replied
“No. If you can’t hear me sit at the front next time. No one else seems to have a problem.”
Even though, I was already sat in the second row.
Having a hearing problem at medical school is difficult. Having an undiagnosed hearing problem is especially difficult, and this was the kind of limbo I was in for a long time.
I have hearing loss. No, I don’t have hearing loss… actually, maybe I do.
Medical school is incredibly intense, requiring a lot of hard work and dedication; which can often distract us from our own personal problems. In my case, I didn’t recognise that the extra challenges I was facing were due to my hearing loss affecting my learning.
Although discovering a disability right in the middle of medical school is not ideal, I think this experience is a reminder to look after yourself and seek help when you need it. With all the studying and never-ending piles of work, do not neglect yourself, your personal health and well-being.
If I could go back in time, I wish I could have followed up my hearing with the GP sooner. So I urge you, from whatever walk of life you are from, whether you are a student or not, if you have a health problem, please follow it up. See your doctor, make sure you are okay and always make some head space for self-care.