Becoming a Deaf doctor isn’t easy. This is of course not due to any lack of intelligence in the Deaf population, but rather the obvious lack of medical schools where learning is conducted in ASL. Deaf individuals seeking to gain a medical degree must face the odds stacked against them and submit to a learning environment where most information is exchanged in their second language. Yet despite these hurdles, throughout the years Deaf individuals have overcome the odds and achieved medical degrees. There are no formal statistics on the number of Deaf medical doctors in America, but is has been estimated the number is in the dozens. Rochester boasts a large Deaf population and is home to a total of six deaf doctors, made up of four physicians, a veterinarian and a dentist. It is noteworthy that all six individuals grew up Deaf and are fluent in sign language.
Dr. Philip Zazove, recently featured in a CNN article, applied to 12 medical schools during his senior year of college, but received only two interviews and no acceptance letters, despite better grades and MCAT scores that should have clearly made him preferred above his peers. After completing graduate school of biology, he applied to another 35 schools and received one acceptance letter from Rutgers University, where he began his medical school education. Later transferring and graduating from Washington University, Zazove became the third Deaf American physician. He now specializes in family medicine and is the well-loved doctor of his Deaf community, with some patients driving two or three hours to see him. He also mentors Deaf and hard of hearing student physicians and runs a non-profit foundation that seeks to provide scholarships for students with severe hearing loss.
Dr. Judith Ann Pachciarz graduated from the University of Louisville School of Medicine, despite being told at a young age her dreams of becoming a doctor were unrealistic and having a high school teacher block her enrollment in chemistry class because her deafness supposedly posed a hazard to working with chemicals. In 1965 she received a master of science degree at the University of Illinios and in 1971 received a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology at St. Louis University. She writes, “Others have said that I am the first deaf person in history, male or female, to earn both a Ph.D. and M.D.; and the first profoundly deaf woman physician. In a way this is very sad. It means that there must have been others more intelligent and more qualified who have been denied the opportunity to be who they wanted to be.”
Dr. Scott Smith is a pediatrician, and works as a Fellow in Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics at the Center for Children with Special Needs (CCSN) at the Tufts-New England Medical Center (NEMC). Smith describes himself as unique among his Deaf and hard of hearing colleagues, because he chooses to sign with his patients and uses an interpreter to voice for him.
Dr. Carolyn Stern, a Brighton physician in private practice, uses her car to educate her community on the capability of Deaf individuals. With a license plate that reads “DEAF DOC,” she enlightens hearing people that Deaf people can not only drive cars, but also become a doctor.
Dr. Christopher Lehfeldt, a Rochester dentist, explains why he chose his career: “Because I can’t hear, I depend on lip reading for cues to what is being said and thus notice teeth with cavities. Dentistry, then, is perfect for me as a career.”
These are just a few of the dozens of empowering stories of Deaf doctors across the country. Their lives and stories serve as a reminder that Deaf people truly can do anything, except hear.