Deaf veterinarians pave their own way

Schooling, first jobs proved difficult but achievable
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The nervous Corgi dug its nails into the metal examination table as Dr. Thomas McDavitt held the tan-and-white dog in place. The patient began to relax as the veterinarian listened for a heartbeat. But instead of using a stethoscope, he felt the dog’s side with his cheek. It was a bit untraditional, but then again, so is Dr. McDavitt.

After contracting spinal meningitis at the age of 5, Dr. McDavitt experienced swelling from the infection that damaged his auditory nerve and left him permanently deaf. Since that tender age, he resolved to be undeterred by his disability, and later, to pursue his dream of becoming a veterinarian. In fact, whenever anyone told him he couldn’t do something because of his deafness, Dr. McDavitt always had a reply ready—“Watch me!”

Dr. McDavitt,auscultates a Corgi with his hands.
Dr. Tom McDavitt, like most deaf veterinarians, has learned to auscultate with his hands.

Hearing it another way

The rigors of veterinary education and practice can be difficult enough, but an additional set of challenges arise for people with profound hearing loss. They face issues such as how they will communicate with their peers and clients in various settings and whether they can properly appreciate animal heart, lung, and bowel sounds.

A number of deaf veterinarians have met those challenges in their own way.

Dr. Candice A. Corriher had normal hearing until age 5, when spinal meningitis also left her profoundly deaf. She talks and reads lips quite well, and she does not know any sign language. Dr. Corriher received a cochlear implant two years after graduating from North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1995.

Since then, she's had a wide variety of job experiences—a one-year large animal internship, a year working on an equine rotavirus vaccine clinical research project for a drug company, and spells in equine private practice as well as small animal clinics. Dr. Corriher is now a horse racing regulatory veterinarian for the Oregon Racing Commission.

Dr. Corriher said her two biggest challenges in clinical practice proved to be stethoscope use and client communication.

When she did large animal work, Dr. Corriher was unable to use a stethoscope, so instead, she became proficient at auscultating heart and lung sounds with her hands.

"While an intern, one of the senior clinicians challenged me to tell him what kind of heart problem this mule had. I correctly diagnosed atrial fibrillation just from palpating with my hands, despite never having listened to one before," Dr. Corriher said, noting that on more than one occasion, she found heart and lung abnormalities that hearing veterinary students with stethoscopes had missed.

Now with her cochlear implant, Dr. Corriher can listen to heart and lung sounds by patching the device into an electronic stethoscope.

It becomes easy for most hearing people to forget that for a deaf person, it can be difficult to communicate with just about every person they meet every day. Many times, deaf people are just brushed off with an oversimplified explanation or 'it doesn't matter.


As far as client communication, Dr. Corriher said through trial and error she developed a system that worked. First, she would send a veterinary technician to gather patient history and let the client know she is deaf. Then, Dr. Corriher would enter the room, and the veterinary technician would facilitate communication when needed. Afterward, the veterinary technician or front desk staff would go over what she said to the client one more time to be sure the client had understood everything.

E-mail was another crucial component to maintaining an open dialogue. Dr. Corriher used it to address follow-up questions and progress reports. She would make phone calls, too, with Internet-based relay services.

Failure to communicate

Dr. Kimberly Dodge, who progressively lost her hearing by age 9, hails technological advancements for making her job in the emergency and critical care clinic in Rochester, N.Y., much easier.

"When I first started in practice, (client communication by telephone) was all teletypewriter-based, so I had to type everything out and depend on a relay operator to read it to the client, and then the operator had to type out everything that the client said back to me," Dr. Dodge said.

While this system worked, she said, users lost communication nuances in the process. Now, sign language interpreter-based relay systems have been developed that make telephone calls much easier. Dr. Dodge speaks directly with clients and the interpreter signs what they are saying back to her by video.

"It's much more natural, allows me to get an idea of what emotions are involved on the client's part, and is a lot faster as well," Dr. Dodge said.

A common misperception, she said, is that deaf people are lazy when they are not good at reading lips and facial expressions.

"It becomes easy for most hearing people to forget that for a deaf person, it can be difficult to communicate with just about every person they meet every day," Dr. Dodge said. "Many times, deaf people are just brushed off with an oversimplified explanation or 'it doesn't matter.'"

This can cause frustration, she said, because it creates anxiety that another situation will come up in which the deaf person is either going to be shunted off to the side or have to make decisions on the basis of inadequate information. Simply making more of an effort to communicate is greatly appreciated.

Safe and sure

Dr. Corriher's racetrack work poses novel communication challenges for her.

For one, if an emergency arises on the track, a radio must be used to have a horse ambulance dispatched. Because she cannot use the radio, Dr. Corriher has a veterinary assistant on the track who mans the radio for her. The same veterinary assistant facilitates her communication with the jockeys when needed, as reading their lips from a distance while they are on a moving horse can be difficult.

The track does pose some safety risks for Dr. Corriher because of the large number of high-strung racehorses all around her.

"I cannot hear someone yelling at me to get out of the way of a loose or uncontrollable horse, so I look over my shoulder a lot. I always have my guard up," Dr. Corriher said. "I am careful to position myself in the best places, and I keep a close eye on the body language of others to alert me to what is going on around me."

Struggling to find work

Dr. McDavitt said because of his deafness, he had to go through a lot for people to accept him. He remembers the days when he couldn't get hired because prospective employers were afraid he couldn't properly communicate with clients. Dr. McDavitt sent out hundreds of resumes the first year after graduating from Kansas State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1993 but received few responses, he says, because he had no references. In the meantime, he volunteered at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kan., for a year.

Eventually, he was hired at a small animal clinic in Milan, Ill. There, he worked on establishing a rapport with clients and obtaining letters of recommendation demonstrating that he could effectively communicate with them. From then on, getting hired became much easier.

Dr. McDavitt now owns the Animal Clinic of Alsip, located about 20 miles south of Chicago. The clinic is the result of merging two local practices—one that he has owned for 10 years and another where he has worked for nine. In all, he has about 4,000 clients, of whom about 200 are deaf.

Dr. McDavitt has achieved much success not only professionally, but also in his personal life. He married his wife, Bridget, four years ago. She gave birth this year to a girl they named Grace.

It took many struggles for McDavitt to get to where he is today, but, as he says, "It was hard, of course, but I did it."

Estimates of the total number of deaf veterinarians range from 40 to more than 100. Approximately 15 veterinary schools and colleges have graduated deaf students, according to the Association of Medical Professionals with Hearing Losses.

The AMPHL was founded in 2001 by three deaf veterinarians—Drs. Kimberly Dodge, Candice A. Corriher, and Danielle Rastetter—and three deaf medical students. The association has expanded to include other professions such as physical therapy and psychology.

Dr. Corriher, AMPHL president, said the goal is to make the path easier for those following in older practitioners' footsteps and to share innovative solutions to obstacles that they all face.

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