Speak Up, Doc, I’m Hard of Hearing

Gael Hannan
November 1, 2011

Ok, people with hearing loss, think quickly now. What’s the most challenging aspect of going to the hospital, doctor, or dentist?

The eye exam where you can’t see the technician’s lips, let alone him?

The dentist who wears a mask, but you can’t say ‘pardon’ with a mouth propped open by metal bars?

The doctor in a rush who doesn’t make eye contact? (Lesser mortals such as medical students are usually sleep- deprived, struggling to keep their own eyes open, let alone focus on yours.)

These situations are the tip of the ‘healthcare communication barriers’ iceberg. You’d think that doctors and other health professionals would know, instinctively, how to communicate with us. The truth is, they are just as likely to break our rules of engagement as any random, untrained person. What’s more, the average healthcare environment is usually not an accommodating one.

But we should never, ever, have our health compromised because of something we may have misheard! While many health issues are beyond our control, we do have a say, and a responsibility, in creating effective communication. We can take the lead by identifying the problem (This examining area is too noisy for me to hear you well) and some solutions (Speak up, doc, and then write it down!).

But as for the question about the most challenging medical situation – my vote goes to the nightmare of “Waiting for Your Name to be Called.”

Like most people, I have spent many life-hours waiting to see the doctor or dentist, at the ER for a child’s broken collarbone, or for medical procedures like x-rays and MRIs. It’s not the mind-numbing wait time that stresses me, but the sheer difficulties of hearing someone call my name. I live in fear of missing my turn, and finding myself the last person in the waiting room, just before they turn out the lights.

I always let the receptionist know about my hearing loss, but I still worry. Clinics and emergency rooms are chaotic, and listening for my name is an aerobic workout.

Please, Ms. Hannan, have a seat. We’ll call you when we’re ready.

Thank you, but I have hearing loss and I might not hear my name called. Could I sit here, beside you? Help with the filing, maybe?

No. Please join the others in the waiting room; we’ll find you.

Well, could you do a little wave, so that I know it’s me you’re calling? I’ve been missed before.

Sure, yes, we’ll try, whatever, siddown!

I shuffle away, hoping to find a seat close to the doorway where the nurse will appear, so I can read my name on her lips. The crowded waiting room has rows of seats; some face the important doorway, but others face the back of the room.

Guess where the only empty seat is. Sitting down, I immediately adopt the upper-half-twist, a manoeuvre unique to hard of hearing people who are trying to see/hear something behind them. The lower half of the body faces forward, and the upper half is cranked completely backwards, in this case towards the doorway. (Variations include the simple ‘neck twist’ – full-body forward and neck turned to the back, à la Linda Blair – and the more common ‘neck thrust’, in which all body parts face forward, and the neck thrusts forward, so as to put the ear closer to the source of sound. ) Please note that all of these positions can be painful if held for any length of time.

If I do manage to cop a seat facing the door, every time the nurse appears, file in hand to call out a name, I jump forward in my seat and do the ‘neck thrust’. If someone else gets up, I shift back. But if not, I rush the nurse saying, “Hey, hi, it’s me, did you call my name, didja?” And please god, she did, otherwise I slink back to my seat, embarrassed at having 200 people witness my pathetic pleading.

I relax for a moment and look out the window, admiring the pretty flowers. Then I feel eyes on me – lots of eyes. A kind soul taps my arm and directs my attention to the nurse, who wouldn’t dream of wading through the mass of humanity to where I sit, and who is calling me impatiently.

My turn at last, now the real fun starts. I’m anxious, with an elevated heart rate and clammy hands, and I haven’t even seen the doctor yet. When stress levels rise, my residual hearing plummets and my well-honed coping skills go into reverse.

Pull yourself together, Hannan, you’re here about an important medical issue. Once you get out of this waiting room zoo, it will just be you and the doctor, one on one. The perfect listening environment….

To Be Continued.

  1. This used to be me… no more!! I tell them “I will not hear you unless I’m looking at you, so someone needs to come get me.” I don’t leave any question as to whether I might not hear them. I tell them point black that I won’t, point to where I’m going to be sitting, and then disappear into my book or magazine. Of course, in a new environment I am least at ease, but it feels good to no longer blame myself or take it upon myself to be responsible for knowing when I’m called. I’ve told them I won’t hear, let them know where to find me, and put the ball in their court.

    1. Gael
      Well written. Many of us face the same frustrations in our healthcare system. At Thunder Bay Regional Hospital we use a pager similar to that used by some restaurants to call people. It has helped, but the challenge goes much deeper than that. How to educate and motivate staff in a busy environment.

  2. Oh, but I understand perfectly where you’re coming from!! I used to be there, and even though I wear a hearing aid I still have problems in a noisy environment at times. Fortunately I can pick up the sounds I need to hear sitting forward or backward, bnut I need to position my head in such a way as to make sure my good ear is turned toward where the sound will come from. Fortunately I’ve nearly always managed to position myself in an advantageous place.
    One good thing….hearing aids are getting better!!

  3. I tell the receptionist in the doctors office I have a hearing loss but sometimes they forget. So I always make sure I am facing the door when they call my name for the examination room. Once you meet the doctor you must remind them to face you and if you do not understand them the first time have them repeat the instructions. Most doctors will understand the issue of hearing loss. If you wear hearing aids or CI make sure your batteries are fresh when you arrive to your medical appointment or any other event you are attending. Gael we all appreciate your support for people with hearing loss.

  4. Hi Gael,
    As always, I love your sense of humour! You continue to amaze me with your witty comments.

    I’ve been through this many, many times and find it baffling how so many medical staff are so ignorant of the difficulties that we face on a daily basis.

    I too sit closest to the nurses station or even stand up and wait, staring them in the face. It’s the only way to do it. I’ve been missed before and they had the gall to dump the blame on me – holy cow…

    I often ask the staff to remove their masks, especially if they continue to mumble through it or ask questions, knowing full well that I lip read. I have even taken the liberty of removing them myself, nicely of course, sharing my dazzling half frozen smile.

    I’m always, always, very upfront with everyone, letting them know that I’m severely hard of hearing. You can’t miss my hearing aids, they are a lovely shade of plum purple, with vibrant pink & white ear molds. I do that on purpose to remind people that I can’t hear. I got so tired of people assuming that I was a snob for not talking to them.

    However, it worked a little too well…I get so many people coming up to me, on the sidewalks, in waiting rooms, and in stores, saying how much they love them. They would tell me their stories about their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncle, wishing that they wore hearing aids. They would gush over them, give me a hug or shake my hand, exclaiming how much they admire my “courage” to be so bold. I gotta ya, it’s days like that when I feel more like a celebrity.

    BTW, I’m working on my third book! Yay!


  5. Hi Gael. You are one, if not the only, person who reminds me that we need to laugh as we journey through our one and only life. To see the humor in trying situations is a gift, a blessing, and I thank you for reminding me to be thankful that I can still laugh.

  6. Gael you are a blessing to humanity. Whether we “hear” ok or not, your compassionate humour breaks through all barriers and inspires us all to “listen” and hopefully to take action in shifting communication styles that do not serve. The medical professional may be a world unto itself but it doesn’t have to perpetuate that story… We are all pressed for time and burdened with priorities, but practicing empathy and sharing a smile do not take time or effort, just a change in mindset because someone cares enough to listen… With love, Carol.

  7. Oh how I identify.
    At my primary they know me but anywhere else I sweat and jump and strain to hear.
    Thank goodness my audiologist now has beepers, that is a huge step forward.
    Keep the good blogs coming.

  8. As always, a great article. Am looking forward to the continuing story. Waiting for any type of medical appointment, specially if you have waited weeks, sometimes months for that appointment, is stressful enough without the added stress of possibly not hearing when it is your turn.

  9. If you are a shoe lover like me personally, this article will blow your mind. First let me say I love shoes, I am like a kid in a candy store sometimes when I see a pair of shoes. It iseven better when you pick up a pair of shoes and envision what your whole outfit would be like walking out the door with those shoes upon. I love the undeniable fact that I can pull out a pair of shoes two years later and still receive compliments on it.

  10. Yes I remember those frustrations, particularly when I had our 4 small children at the hospital on a number of occasions. I still go once in awhile (try to stay healthy to avoid these dreadful incidents) but I get very assertive in making sure the hosptial staff gets my attention when called.

  11. You have made my day since I am scheduled for an appointment tomorrow. Having felt the terror of the waiting room in my clinic which is usually packed with people at all times, I have experienced every agony you mentioned, and all this despite the fact that I remind them each time that I may not hear them call my name. Now I can try it with a fresh memory of reading your article and maybe enjoy a few chuckles myself.

  12. It’s even more fun when they do not know how to say your name. My offical name is ‘Margaretha.’ I have trained myself to listen for any form of a hesitant
    It works best for me if I can face the room and mananage not to fall asleep while waiting. Margaret

  13. That “tug on a hose” item is truly loony. Staff should not have any difficulty explaining the procedure, and should have long before established a signal system for the substantial segment of the population we really are.

    On routine matters, humor is a necessity, but all too often the situation is deadly serious. It is not a laughing matter when behavior like that in a service industry is tolerated. I had no difficulty explaining what and why to my customers as well as their next several steps after they left me, and they deeply appreciated it.

    I generally refuse to disappear and “siddown” somewhere. They will definitely not come after me. Jennifer has it right–position right at the door where the nurse appears, or stand firmly near whoever is announcing. I have lost appointments even though I was clearly signed in and waiting. It “was all my fault”, naturally.

    Where possible, schedule an off hour on an off day, and be tough about it, the slight inconvenience pays off tenfold.

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