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Students' deafness presents a challenge, but not a barrier

Nothing could stop them. Once Robert Nutt and Wendy Osterling, both members of the DMS Class of 2004, had their hearts set on a career in medicine, not even being deaf was going to get in their way. Medical school is "a new realm" for students with disabilities, Nutt concedes. The question he asked himself prior to entering DMS was, "Have I fine-tuned my survival skills adequately?"

Wendy Osterling and Rob Nutt give a thumbs-up—in sign language—to Dartmouth's creativity in accommodating their hearing impairment. Both students have just started their fourth year of M.D. studies at Dartmouth Medical School.
Photo: Jon Gilbert Fox

Both he and Osterling had already demonstrated remarkable survival skills—qualities they identify as creativity, innovation, persistence, and patience. After graduating from Dartmouth College in 1995, Osterling—who grew up in Sudbury, Mass., and has been deaf since birth—traveled to Ecuador as a Peace Corps volunteer and taught environmental education and forestry for two years. While medicine had been "an idea" since high school, Osterling says, the choice became clear during her Peace Corps days.

Care: "I saw the need for preventive medicine while I was in developing countries," she says. There was so little care available in the region where she worked that people often came to her to ask for medicine and advice, even though she was not affiliated with a clinic and had had no medical training.

Upon her return to the U.S., Osterling lived in Boston, doing research in microbiology at Harvard Medical School while taking courses at the Harvard Extension School to fulfill her premed requirements.

Nutt, who was born with a condition that causes progressive hearing loss, grew up on a farm in Blue Bell, Pa., near Philadelphia. Though the farm wasn't the family's main source of income— Nutt's father is an orthopaedic surgeon—he says he and his brothers "learned how to work," haying in the summers and doing farm chores year-round. From the time he was in 10th grade, Nutt knew he wanted to be a doctor, a goal he was determined to pursue when he graduated from Dartmouth College in 1998.

Though equipped with determination, Nutt and Osterling still had to find the right medical school. In general, Osterling observes, "the medical world is not set up for people with disabilities." Since they knew from previous experience that Dartmouth was "willing to be openminded and accommodating," as Nutt puts it, DMS seemed the natural choice.

Boon: In fact, Osterling says, "DMS has surpassed my expectations." For classroom work, the school has provided sign-language interpreters and Computer- Assisted Real-Time Captioning (CART), which produces a written transcript of a lecture as it's being delivered. The latter is both a boon and a liability, Nutt says, because it takes as long to read through the lecture notes as to sit through the class.

Now that more of their time is spent in direct contact with patients, they find communication less of a problem. "I have yet to encounter a patient who reacts adversely to learning that I'm deaf," Nutt says. While they use interpreters in clinical settings, Nutt and Osterling communicate well one-on-one, even without assistance. "Patients have told me that I really listen, since I look directly at their faces in order to lip-read and understand, instead of looking at the charts while they're talking," Osterling says. "Empathy is a twoway street," Nutt adds. "As a doctor, you're giving something to patients and attaining their trust at the same time."

Deaf: Osterling hopes to go into pediatrics and would like to work with disabled and underprivileged children. Nutt, who is considering a surgical subspecialty such as urology or otolaryngology, has already performed a valuable service for disabled children locally. During his second year at DMS, he received a Schweitzer Community Service Fellowship, which enabled him to found Upper Valley DEAF (Deaf/Hard of Hearing Education and Advocacy for Families), a group for parents and children that brings together the services and expertise of many area organizations.

It's still rare to find a deaf medical student. The Association of American Medical Colleges does not keep such records, but Osterling and Nutt say they're aware of only "a few" nationally. They see the medical world becoming more diverse and accepting of differences, however. "With a little education, people are very understanding," Osterling says. This is especially true of staff at DHMC, they agree. "They've learned really quickly," Nutt says.

Catherine Tudish

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