Third place in the 2019 WCI Scholarship contest goes to Evan Mercer, an MS2 at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Evan is severely hearing impaired, and writes about his educational experiences overcoming that challenge. Third place in the 2019 WCI Scholarship Competition is good for $7,110 in cash, Evan’s choice of a WCI Online Course (although I confess I do not know if there is software that will make it useful for him or not as it certainly was not designed to be accessible to the hearing impaired), and a copy of The White Coat Investor’s Financial Boot Camp for every member of his class.
I was born into a world of silence. I did not hear my mother’s first whispered words welcoming me into her life. I did not hear my father’s off-key lullabies as he coaxed me to sleep. I did not hear my brother’s whoops of excitement the first time we met. I heard none of this, but no one knew.
Three-months shy of my fourth birthday, my deafness was discovered. My left ear was declared profoundly deaf – a dead ear. My right ear fared a bit better. It had only a severe loss, meaning I might be able to hear a car horn blaring – if my ear was pressed firmly against the hood.
I had missed those critical language years, those first years of life when children translate sound into words. Countless specialists told my parents that I would never learn to read past the third-grade level and speaking was out of the question. My best, and probably only, chance at communication would be sign language. The experts gave my parents brochures on vocational training, telling them I would need to seek out jobs where hearing, as well as higher level thinking skill, was not necessary. A night shift janitor was the first option on the list. They advised that, on the night shift, I would not have to worry about dealing with people. Their vision of my future was that of working and living in a world apart from the hearing.
Unwilling to accept this diagnosis, my parents enrolled me in an oral-deaf school, a school with the goal of teaching deaf children to speak. After a year of eight-hours-a-day therapy, my first word – milk – finally came at age five. It took two more years of intense therapy before I could combine three words together. At age seven, my first sentence – dog run yard – while far from grammatically correct, was a cause for celebration.
I was mainstreamed into a public school in the second grade. I was so far behind my classmates that there seemed to be no hope. But deafness had taught me a lesson – to never give up – not when the experts tell you it cannot be done – not when you have fallen so far behind that quitting seems the only way out – not when achieving your dream seems an absolute impossibility.
Sensing that words, so elusive to me, would free me from the bonds of deafness, I began to doggedly pursue them. I read four, five, sometimes six books a week. Each word that was new to me, I wrote in a notebook and then asked my mom what it meant and how to pronounce it. That notebook became my constant companion. At times, my words, so articulate in my mind, would still come out in an incoherent jumble. To work on my speech, every morning I woke up an hour early and practiced reading aloud – everything from cereal boxes to newspapers – with my mom correcting every misspoken word. Her motto seemed to be “So what if you can’t hear, do it anyway.”
The oral-deaf school, additional weekly therapy sessions, and hi-tech hearing aids took a financial toll on my family, but I never once heard them complain. They sacrificed greatly for me, for which I shall be forever grateful.
My life was transformed by the efforts of my parents along with committed health care professionals, all who refused to give up on me even as others could not see past my defective ears. Just as they had fought for me, I wanted to pass that along. I decided to become a doctor.
I knew the odds of getting into medical school were against me. After all, less than 0.2% of all medical students have a physical disability, even a minor one. What chance did a deaf kid really have in gaining admittance? But a medical school did take a chance on me and now it’s my time to show the world exactly what a hearing-impaired doctor is capable of.
As a medical student, I sometimes meet with the parents of children who have been newly diagnosed with hearing loss. Since I have already walked down the same path they are now starting on, I am able to address their fears and concerns firsthand. I encourage them to take every available chance to have their children talk to others. In my case, my mother used to take me to McDonald’s, standing behind me as I told the cashier my order, using the words we had practiced at home. At times, unable to understand me, the cashier would look to my mother, but she never answered, instead waiting on me to reply. Even as I struggled, I was expected to keep trying until I was successful in getting my hamburger. To this day, there are few things I appreciate more than strolling up to a fast food counter and having my order easily understood.
While I do tell these parents of my struggles, I also speak about my victories – hosting a radio sports talk show, becoming my college’s mascot, having a life filled with good friends. All too often, the disabled are encumbered by the low expectations of others. I urge them to fight this with an unrelenting determination, expecting just as much from their hearing-impaired child as they would from any other. Most of all, I let them know that I do not live my life with a disability, I just live.
Most of my peers in medical school have never met a hearing-impaired classmate before. I have openly discussed my hearing loss with them and, through me, they have learned that the hearing-impaired are no different than they are. My goal is that they will take these experiences into caring for their patients with disabilities, focusing not on obstacles, but on possibilities.
I know that medical school will test me in a myriad of ways, as it already has, but I cannot imagine a life without a challenge to overcome or a barrier to be broken. How boring would that be? While I want my future patients, first and foremost, to benefit from my medical expertise, I also want to be a beacon of hope for them as they struggle through illness and infirmity. Deafness will always be a part of my life, but I refuse to let it define me. After all, if a boy who had to fight for every word can become a skilled physician, all things are surely possible.