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Learning to Hear: A Medical Student’s Experience with Hearing Loss During Medical School

Developing moderately-severe to severe sensorineural hearing loss in my last year of college came as a total shock.

My first reaction was a combination of bewilderment and denial. Every day I hoped I was getting better, but repeated tests showed nothing was improving. By what I felt was necessity, I became quite isolated. Repeated attempts at social engagement led to repeated failure. It was very difficult to understand what anyone was saying, particularly in locations with background noise. It sounded like mumbling. It was exhausting for me, and I felt it was also exhausting for anyone I talked to.

To cope, I started running, averaging about fourteen miles a day. It was a refuge where it didn’t matter how well I could hear, just how far my legs could take me. Unfortunately, within a couple months I had a bad stress fracture, and my one outlet — running —was also taken away. I needed support from others but was unable to obtain it. I felt utterly alone. After classes, I would drive up to the nearby mountains in Arizona, and pray and cry if I could. All I could ask is “Why?”

As time goes on, the questions changed to “How?” I was still living and breathing, and I knew others in the past had surmounted what seemed to be the impossible. I accepted the permanence of my hearing loss. When I got hearing aids, I felt that they would help the situation, but unfortunately my hearing was very bad and they offered me little to no benefit. Repeated visits to the audiologist led to a cycle of setting changes, none of which helped. Uncertain about the future, and trying to keep speculation to a minimum, I still anticipated I would end up alone in a lab somewhere, when all I really wanted to do was treat patients.

Around this time, I had my interview at University of Illinois-Chicago Medical School. I left feeling horrible, as I had a difficult time understanding the interviewers, and did not know how to communicate to them what was going on. When a person has hearing loss, it can often appear to others as a mental deficit, when really they can’t understand what’s being said.

When I finally heard back that I had been accepted, I could hardly believe it. I graduated from University of Arizona and spent the summer in Los Angeles, where I was connected with the UCLA Medical Center. I was evaluated for cochlear implants, but instead I was more appropriately fitted with hearing aids with power receivers. It was then found that these aids could in fact benefit me, and I would probably not need the implants after all. At this point, I also met the woman who would become my wife, and through Facebook and deliberate conversations we were able to communicate. By this time, I was able to function at an acceptable level, and carry on conversations in one-on-one settings. The shroud of darkness that I felt covering my life began to lift.

As I started at University of Illinois College of Medicine, I was able to make some new friends and carry on conversations at least in quiet settings, as well as understand the lectures. I saw that my hearing problem wouldn’t impede my academic functioning at least in the first year, which is primarily an academic setting. I actually discovered that I was perhaps better adjusted than my classmates. The fear of failing some small multiple choice test seemed rather trivial to me in light of what I had been going through the past year. Also, I had been relatively freed of the fear of embarrassment and failure, as I had built up quite a tolerance to communication misunderstandings . This left me more free to learn my medical subjects. I took to learning about sound, voice, and hearing, as well as medicine. I read articles. I experimented with the various frequencies of sound, seeing what things made it possible for me to understand speech. I experimented with various custom molds for my hearing aids. I even got married between my first and second year!

I did feel isolated in my second year, but continued to make improvements in my hearing aids in preparation for my clinical training. I learned new concepts like “dynamic range compression” and “attack and release times” that are involved in hearing amplification. Second year introduced me to the clinical setting which I greatly feared. I was able to use an amplified stethoscope with headphones that go over my hearing aids. It was challenging, but I got used to it.

By the beginning of my third year, through hearing aid adjustments and custom molds, I was at the point I could understand conversations in both quiet and noise, and had much fewer limitations. To the bystander, my hearing loss was invisible. As the third year progressed I continued to improve my situation, to the point where problems were few and far between. One thing I learned to do is ask for help. I had to. For example, I find the lung sounds more challenging. Several times I’ve found the respiratory therapists and asked them to show me where the “crackles” or “rhonchi” are located and what characterizes them.

Now, my hearing loss is barely a thought, but it’s been a long road. I am able to do the things I love, and I do look forward each day to seeing patients and even hearing their concerns! This experience has allowed me to both have more empathy and offer hope to the suffering patient, particularly those facing life-changing diagnoses. Having been there and having gone through the struggles is something that just can’t be learned in a book.

Greg Rosic (1 Posts)

Contributing Writer Emeritus

University of Illinois College of Medicine

Greg is a Class of 2015 medical student at University of Illinois College of Medicine.