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December 15, 2004

Echoes of caring in 6 deaf doctors

From: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle - Rochester,NY,USA - Dec 15, 2004

Greg Livadas
Staff writer

In Rochester, home to one of the largest deaf populations in the country, it's not surprising to find a doctor who also happens to be deaf working here.

What might be surprising is that Rochester has become home to six deaf doctors, including four physicians, a veterinarian and a dentist. All were deaf as children, and all know sign language.

"Here, people don't stare because you are different," said Dr. Michael McKee, who moved to Rochester in July to work as a family medicine physician with Lifetime Health. He estimates a third of his patients are deaf.

While no statistics exist on the number of deaf medical doctors in the country, those here say their clan is in the dozens but probably fewer than 100.

Cliff Andrews, 55, of Brighton recently visited McKee for an examination. Andrews, who is deaf, sat at a table directly across from McKee and answered his questions. Both patient and doctor used sign language to communicate.

Before coming to Lifetime Health, Andrews used to visit hearing doctors and communicated by writing back and forth.

"I understand this better," Andrews said in sign language.

Local deaf doctors specialize in their fields of choice. Each has also made adjustments to make sure he or she can work as well as hearing peers can.

McKee last year got a cochlear implant, a surgically implanted device he received in his right ear that enables him to hear well enough to use a traditional telephone. It also allows him to plug an amplified stethoscope into a processor he wears on his belt to hear his patient's lungs and heartbeat. The processor sends the sound to his implant and allows him to hear the heartbeat without putting anything else to his ears.

Dr. Kim Dodge, a veterinarian, relies on a device that visually displays a heart rhythm on a handheld screen.

And Dr. Angela Earhart, an obstetrician and gynecologist resident at Strong Memorial Hospital, has an interpreter at her side. In the operating room, the interpreter puts on a mask with a clear face so Earhart can better read lips.

Unique barriers

The Association of Medical Professionals with Hearing Losses was formed in 2000 as more medical students and professionals realized they had common concerns that could better be addressed collectively. Should a medical profession even be considered if you are deaf? When should a prospective medical school or employer be told you are deaf?

"We have unique barriers from other professionals," McKee said.

Solutions to problems are offered on the association's Web site: "All of us want to be judged on our merits. ... You can do anything you want to do. Never let anyone else tell you that you cannot do something because of your hearing loss. You should be the one to decide what your limitations are, if any."

McKee spent a month working at Lifetime's Marion B. Folsom Health Center in Brighton four years ago while he was still in medical school. Here, he met students who attended Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and he learned about the large local deaf population.

Nationally, about 1 percent of a population is deaf, which would equate to 7,367 deaf people in Monroe County, according to the Center for Governmental Research. That doesn't factor in a larger deaf population in Rochester because of NTID and the Rochester School for the Deaf.

McKee also found a greater awareness by the public about deafness, including many people who know basic sign language. When a job opportunity opened with Lifetime, he quickly applied. The practice was designed to be accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing patients. Staff members know sign language and how to use text telephones or a video relay service. Examination rooms have flashing strobe lights that activate when a doctor, who would otherwise knock, walks into the room.

"Now I'm really happy to be here and to help," McKee said.

His deafness rarely is an issue to his new patients who have normal hearing. Occasionally, he'll gently ask them not to talk to him if his head is turned away.

"It's no big deal," McKee said. "I'm very open."

Dr. Carolyn Stern, a Brighton physician in private practice, drives a car with "DEAF DOC" personalized license plates, which she says helps educate a few people who seem surprised deaf people can even drive a car, let alone become a doctor.

"People said I couldn't do it. But did I listen? No," Stern said, smiling.

She communicates easily with her patients — about 30 percent are deaf — by speaking or using sign language. She rarely uses an interpreter. At their first meeting, she tells her patients about her hearing loss.

"I don't think they think of me as deaf," Stern said. "That kind of falls to the wayside as long as communication is happening."

Stern has been, and continues to be, a role model to medical students. McKee and Earhart spent time working with Stern in a clinical rotation four years ago when Stern was with Lifetime Health. As a result, Rochester was Earhart's first choice for her residency.

Stern also keeps busy consulting medical groups, associations and agencies about accessible health care. Those visits have taken her as far away as China.

Deafness is a bonus

Dr. David Siegel, chief of pediatrics at Rochester General Hospital, was looking for a doctor to fill a vacancy in the hospital's pediatric developmental behavior unit. An acquaintance told him about Dr. Scott R. Smith, who happens to be deaf.

While Siegel didn't set out to hire a deaf doctor, he said Smith's deafness "is an added bonus for us. We're actually thrilled to have Scott involved in the department. This allows us to grow in our own diversity in wonderful ways."

Smith works alongside an interpreter, who accompanies him on his rounds, at faculty meetings and with most interviews with patients; almost all his patients have been hearing patients, so far.

"We expect as he becomes known, that this will be a site deaf families will feel comfortable with," Siegel said.

Since Smith knows sign language and understands the issues concerning deafness, he hopes to also work with NTID and Rochester School for the Deaf in the future.

Siegel isn't the only one who thinks deafness has advantages.

"Because I can't hear, I depend on lip reading for cues to what is being said — and thus notice teeth with cavities," said Dr. Christopher Lehfeldt, a dentist who moved to Rochester in 1991. "Dentistry, then, is perfect for me as a career."

A native of Russia, Dr. Bess Veyberman, who graduated from the University of Rochester Medical School in 2001, considers herself hard of hearing. She calls her hearing loss "a great benefit in terms of patient care because I listen more attentively." Veyberman, who became deaf as an infant and moved to Brighton with other family members, hears well enough with hearing aids to use a phone and speak, and she hopes to learn sign language. She plans to join West Ridge Family Practice in January as a family physician.

Community reaction

"I think it is simply great that we have an outstanding cadre of highly qualified and competent deaf doctors in Rochester," said Alan Hurwitz, who heads NTID and serves as chairman of the National Advisory Committee of a community prevention research center targeting health care for the deaf.

"I use some of their services and find it so easy and convenient to communicate directly with them. They understand what it is like to be deaf and make every effort to put us at ease when we discuss the complexities of our health conditions," Hurwitz said.

Matt Starr, director of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program for DePaul Innovative Solutions (formerly The Health Association), said Rochester can use more deaf doctors.

"Hearing people have a lot more choices than if a deaf person wants to go to a deaf doctor," he said.

Dr. Timothy Malia, who works with McKee at Folsom, agrees.

"If we have more doctors that are advocates for the deaf in Rochester, it's going to improve the care for the deaf and hard of hearing community," said Malia, who is hearing but signs fluently. "The deaf community still needs more doctors who are accessible."

Dr. Christopher Lehfeldt
Age: 43.

Born: Washington, D.C.

Deaf: At birth. Received a cochlear implant in October.

Residence: Rochester; arrived in 1991.

Employed: Dentist at Elmwood Dental Group, Brighton; Rushville Health Center, Yates County.

Education: B.S. in chemistry, Georgetown University, 1983; D.D.S., University of Maryland School of Dentistry, 1987.

Dr. Carolyn Stern
Age: 40.

Born: Smithtown, Suffolk County.

Deaf: At birth. Received a cochlear implant in 1991.

Residence: Brighton; arrived in 1998.

Employed: Family physician, private practice, The Deaf Doc, Brighton.

Education: B.A. in biochemistry, Case Western Reserve University, 1986; M.D. from Northwestern University Medical School, 1990.

Dr. Angela Earhart
Age: 29.

Born: Des Moines, Iowa.

Deaf: At birth.

Residence: Rochester; arrived in 2002.

Employed: Third-year OB/GYN resident at Strong Memorial Hospital.

Education: B.S. in biology, Duke University, 1997; M.D., University of Texas, Houston, 2002.

Dr. Kim Dodge
Age: 31.

Born: Frederick, Md.

Deaf: At age 8, after a gradual hearing loss.

Residence: Rochester; arrived in 2003.

Employed: Veterinarian at Animal Hospital of Pittsford, in Brighton.

Education: B.S. in zoology, Michigan State University, 1995; D.V.M., 1999.

Dr. Scott R. Smith
Age: 34.

Born: Winston-Salem, N.C.

Deaf: Diagnosed at age 1.

Residence: Rochester; arrived in July.

Employed: Pediatrician, specializing in developmental and behavioral problems, at Rochester General Hospital.

Education: B.S. in biochemistry, East Carolina University; M.D., Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University; M.P.H., Harvard School of Public Health.

Dr. Michael McKee
Age: 28.

Born: Tampa, Fla.

Deaf: At birth. Received a cochlear implant in 2003.

Residence: Rochester; arrived in July.

Employed: Family physician, Lifetime Health at Folsom Center, Brighton.

Education: B.A. in history and political science from Lynn University, Boca Raton, Fla., 1997; M.D. University of Florida in Gainesville, 2001.

To learn more
About 300 people — including nurses, medical staff and interpreters — belong to an online discussion group associated with the Association of Medical Professionals with Hearing Losses. A national convention is planned for next year in Washington, D.C.

For more information, visit

Copyright 2004 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.