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Deaf doctor rises to challenges

Ob-gyn resident at Strong hailed for communication

By Greg Livadas
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle Staff writer

(September 23, 2003) — Dr. Angela Earhart is in the middle of a 15-hour shift at Strong Memorial Hospital’s obstetrics unit when she takes a call from a patient at home, complaining of pain.

“Have you been able to eat anything?” she asks the patient. “Is the pain worse than yesterday?”

Earhart, 28, looks to Kim Kelstone, not for advice, but to find out what the answers are.

Kelstone, a sign language interpreter who is wearing a headset and is listening in on the conversation, signs the patient’s answers, and Earhart immediately asks her next question into the phone receiver.

It may be an unorthodox phone conversation, but it is second nature to Earhart, who is one of perhaps 40 deaf physicians in the country.

“So far, I haven’t found anything I can’t do,” Earhart said. “There may be certain challenges to face, but I always find ways to overcome them. I compensate through the use of interpreters, lip reading, special equipment and having an open personality and a strong desire to do my best.”

A native of Des Moines, Iowa, Earhart — who said her grandfather was a distant cousin of aviatrix Amelia Earhart — was born profoundly deaf to a hearing family who fought for opportunities for her.

“They instilled the belief in me that I can do anything and encouraged me to be involved and do things as any average child would do,” Earhart said.

She had interpreters throughout college and graduated from Duke University in North Carolina with a bachelor’s degree in biology, spent a year in research medicine at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, then enrolled at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, from which she graduated. In June, she was featured in a medical reality television show, Houston Medical.

In medical school, she thought she would be a family practice physician. It wasn’t until her fourth year that she decided to become an obstetrician and gynecologist.

Lingering doubts

“I wasn’t sure if it was really possible,” she said. “It was something I knew I wanted to do, but I didn’t know if it was possible. I was scared to death of being in the operating room. How was I going to be able to communicate?”

In June 2002, she married Gabriel Ianculovici, a native of Romania who works as a sign language interpreter.

“He’s pretty good about bringing food and coffee every night,” Earhart said. “It’s nice to know he’s always there.”

It was encouragement from her husband that helped Earhart decide she could do anything her hearing peers could do, even if it meant doing it in a different way.

“I really enjoy working with women and the miracle of life,” she said. “I like the diversity of ob-gyn — clinic, surgery and a little of primary care. I enjoy doing hands-on in the (operating room). I also enjoy the challenge of high-risk obstetrics.”

During college, Earhart spent a month on clinical rotation with Dr. Carolyn Stern, now a private practice physician in Brighton. Stern is also deaf.

“She wanted to make sure first that Rochester was the place she wanted to be and secondly, that she could handle the office setting,” Stern said. “She’s a really neat person, I really like her. I think she’ll do well in whatever she does.”

In the little spare time she has, Earhart enjoys traveling and remodeling her home near the hospital. She will be at Strong until her residency ends in June 2006. After that, she doesn’t know where she will live.

A small club

Stern, who for years was the only deaf physician in the area, would happily welcome Earhart as the second deaf physician in town if she decides to make Rochester her home after her residency. “I don’t think there’s enough, personally,” Stern said.

The American Medical Association does not keep track of the number of deaf doctors in the country, but Dr. Kim Dodge, a board member of the Association of Medical Professionals with Hearing Loss, estimates there are at least 40 deaf physicians in the country, most of whom are in residency like Earhart or have completed their residencies within the past five years.

Dodge, who moved to Brighton in July, is a veterinarian at Pittsford Animal Hospital.

Earhart, who can hear some sounds with the help of two powerful hearing aids often covered by her hair or a surgical cap, seems at ease visiting various patients when making her rounds. She immediately identifies herself to her new patients.

“When I first go in I say I have a hearing loss, I have a sign language interpreter and I read lips,” she said. “I’m there to help them and they’re there to get helped.”

Proving herself

Earhart recently checked on Tracy Germonto, of Honeoye Falls, who had delivered a daughter, Shannon, the day before. As Earhart left the room, Germonto signed, “Thank you” to her.

“Deaf awareness in this city is amazing,” Earhart said.

Germonto, who recalled seeing Earhart on television, said she wasn’t surprised to be treated by a deaf doctor because she knew Rochester has a large concentration of deaf residents.

“She was wonderful,” Germonto said. “She’s not only intelligent, but also personable. The hearing was not an issue.”

Kelstone said she’s had patients ask her afterward why she was even there because the patients understood Earhart just fine. They didn’t realize Kelstone was needed to tell Earhart what the patients were saying.

Just as she proves her hearing loss isn’t an issue to her patients, Earhart had to prove it to her co-workers.

Dr. Kara Eastwood, Earhart’s chief resident, recalls easily conversing with Earhart on their first meeting, without an interpreter. “She’s just so communicative,” Eastwood said.

But she admits she initially had reservations about the ability a deaf doctor would have, especially in the operating room where everyone’s focus is on the patient, not on the sign language interpreter dressed in scrubs.

“At first it took some getting used to,” Eastwood said. “She’s an excellent surgeon and excellent at picking up nonverbal cues.”

Strong support

Earhart said Strong has been very supportive in providing whatever assistance she needs to get the job done. Earhart uses a vibrating text pager and an amplified stethoscope, and her interpreter wears a clear surgical mask so her lips can be read in the operating room. She always has an interpreter — usually Kelstone or Deb Cooper — accompany her, and the interpreters usually work in 8-hour shifts. While they have no specific medical training, Kelstone joked she could probably deliver a baby if she is ever stuck in an elevator with an expectant mother.

“She’s becoming family,” Earhart said about Kelstone during a quick submarine sandwich dinner recently.

Strong is paying thousands of dollars for Earhart’s interpreters. It was a cost officials knew would come with Earhart when they accepted her residency.

“Given the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is illegal for any organization to make a decision based on disability as opposed to the merit of an individual,” said Kathy Parrinello, Strong’s chief operating officer.

“It’s the right thing to do. We do eat quite a bit of the cost, but that’s our mission. She was a bright individual. Our responsibility was to make the accommodation. We obviously knew she had that handicap, but it didn’t affect our decision,” Parrinello said. “We chose her based on many factors, including her interview, references, how she did in medical school. She got a high ranking.”

The only time an interpreter isn’t needed is when Earhart can communicate directly to a deaf patient. Several deaf patients have requested her.

“That’s wonderful,” Earhart said. “There is always an advantage when you speak with your patients in their first language. I often find that my deaf patients have many questions that have gone unanswered. They often have misunderstandings that need to be clarified. I feel that for the first time in their lives, the deaf patient can be completely open and obtain the information they need. That’s very rewarding for me, and I think the patients like it, too.”

© 2003 Rochester Democrat & Chronicle



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