Help! I Can’t Hear My Doctor (Or Nurse, Or Technician…)

I recently wrote about the nerve-wracking experience common to people with hearing loss: Waiting For Your Name To Be Called. To people who can hear (well), this might not seem like a big deal. But in medical situations, or at an airport for example, waiting for audible information is a real source of anxiety in the hearing loss world. But that particular nightmare has nothing on this next one:

Understanding Important People Who Are Telling You Important Things But Who Don’t Know How to Talk to You.

So, to continue with the story  in Was That My Name They Called?…..

Finally! My name was called and I’m waiting to see my new ENT specialist. I’m in an examining room – a real room, with walls, not curtain dividers. People won’t be able to hear our loud voices, mine and the doctor’s who will have to speak up for me.

Doc bursts into the room, with his white coat and a medical intern flapping behind him in his breeze. He plops onto the stool in front of me and looks me in the eye. IN THE EYE! Finally, a doctor who does know how to communicate with his patients. It took me years to train my family doctor not to talk to my feet or other body parts during a check-up.

So, what can I do for you today, Mrs. Hannan?”

I start to babble. “I haven’t seen a specialist in a million years, and my audiologist thought maybe it was time I should. A lot of my friends have acoustic neuromas or other interesting stuff, and when I was a child a doctor did radiation on my ear, but I’ve never had an MRI, and I’m thinking maybe I should?” I finally stop talking.

“Mumble, mumble,” he says into my chart.

Doc doesn’t respond to my little attention-getting wave, so I lean sideways, downwards and forward to make eye contact. “Sorry, doctor, I have hearing loss, could you face me please?”

He gives me a blank look, then a little laugh-snort, “Yes you are, aren’t you? Sorry about that.” (But is he sorry for my hearing loss or because he didn’t face me?)

“Ok, fine, an MRI it is. I’m sure there’s nothing there, but it doesn’t hurt to check. We’ll let you know the results.” Doc nods and sweeps out of the room, the intern once again catching his wake. And poof, it’s over! 45 minutes of waiting, 2 ½ minutes of consultation. I’m not complaining because I appreciate the good medical care, but during this short meeting I had to spend more energy on my communication challenges than on discussing my medical issues.

Some weeks later, I check in for my MRI. I’ve changed into a chic hospital gown, hopefully with the flap opening the right way. The technician holds out earplugs for me to wear during the noisy procedure.

I shake my head. “I have hearing loss. What do I need to know before this starts?”

“During the test, you’ll hear my voice telling you when to breathe in, to hold, and to let it out.”

“No, I won’t. Without my hearing aids, I’ll be deaf.”

A blank look. “I’ll speak loudly, you’ll hear me.”

“No. I. Won’t. What do you do for other people who can’t hear?”

An even blanker blank look. “Hmmm, well, I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

“Hmmm, well, I’m sure we won’t – unless you come up with a visual or physical way to tell me what to do.”

She leaves and grumpily, I store my hearing aids and other valuables in a locker and sit down to wait, feeling vulnerable, deaf and half-naked. The technician reappears with a length of clear tubing – the type clearly designed to be inserted into something – coiled around her arm. My face must show my shock, because she manages to break a smile and motions me to follow her.

In the large MRI room, she speaks and I speechread her face and hand motions. “We’re so sorry, but none of us have had experience with deaf people and MRI. How’s this – we’ll tie the tubing around your wrist; when we yank it, you breathe in and hold it until the next yank, when you let it out.”

“What if you forget to yank the second time?” I was only half-joking, but it gets a laugh.

The happy ending? The tube-yanking worked, and nothing showed up on the MRI. An even better result was that some years later, when I was back for another MRI as part of my cochlear implant evaluation, the hospital had installed a more professional wrist-yanking device. Maybe I can take credit for that, who knows?

When people with hearing loss are anxious, our coping skills often nosedive. There are solutions for most difficult communication environments, but we must learn what they are and put them into practice whenever possible. And just as importantly, all healthcare and other public services should understand the needs of a huge and growing percentage of their patients/clients: people who are deaf or have hearing loss. The answers are there – find them.

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Note: This week’s article is based on a piece I wrote in 2011 called, “Face Me, Doc, I’m Still Hard of Hearing”. At the time, I did not have a cochlear implant.

 Photo:  Amauri Acosta Montiel

About Gael Hannan

Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog for HearingHealthMatters.org, which has an international following, Gael wrote the acclaimed book "The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss". She is regularly invited to present her uniquely humorous and insightful work to appreciative audiences around the world. Gael has received many awards for her work, which includes advocacy for a more inclusive society for people with hearing loss. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

7 Comments

  1. Really irksome. I have said “My hearing has not improved since you last spoke” when the speaker reverts to mumbling.

  2. Hello Gael:
    Thanks for another of your wonderfully humorous, but serious messaging posts.
    I’ve had this experience also, and I’m pleased to report that we’re making some progress at our local hospitals, as they now have a visual numbering system. However, they still shout out your name from around a corner, twenty or more feet away, so they still have a ways to go.
    Merry Christmas to you and Doug and family!

  3. I’m not deaf but have mild to moderate severe SNHL i had been admitted into the hospital for surgery twice this year. I am relatively new to hearing loss and inexperienced with pitfalls when navigatIng in world that I have had learned the hard way is geared for a hearing society. I had to learn the hard way that even when I informed the medical staff about my hearing loss and wear hearing aids. Nothing was done to accommodate me. Out of concern that during my stay I feared that when needing to remove my hearing aids for some medicine test my fear was that they would be miss placed or lost. I also noted that there was a information board in my room. On that board nothing was said thar I am a patient with hearing loss. Sometimes techs come into the room with their mobile computer desk and I am unable to see the technician face hiding behind it. My thoughts were surly they have had hard of hearing patient before and know how to accommodate them. I realize I was wrong. Now I don’t care for another hospital stay in my future but I’m pretty much prepared to be my own self advocate.

  4. Please use a picture of healthcare provider wearing a medical masks that allows for lipreading and facial expressions to be seen.

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  5. I cannot believe how many times I have had to remind health care individuals of my deafness and that I am a cochlear implant user several times during the same visit. I will say, “please face me….blah blah blah”, and the next minute they speak to the computer or their chart. Then, I have to remind them of my “problem”. I have to admit to getting pretty frustrated sometimes having to advocate for myself so often to people who should know better. Thank you for the article. It is another great one.

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