By Philip Zazove
It was the 1950s, a time when people with disabilities received few accommodations or support. A time long before any legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act was conceived, let alone passed.
I am the first and, to date, only person in my family with a profound hearing loss. While I will never know what caused my hearing loss, my mother didn’t have a normal pregnancy.
I was born five weeks past my expected due date. I was “floppy” and very sickly from the beginning. Today, my mother would have been induced much earlier and I would have been placed in a neonatal intensive care unit. My parents, both physicians, watched me 24/7 for two weeks, shaking me every time I stopped breathing until I started again. Gradually, I became healthy and thrived like any other child.
My speech, though, was never clear. However, I clearly understood and interacted normally with everyone. My father first noticed something was wrong shortly after I turned 4, while we were putting books on a shelf. He spoke to me and I couldn’t hear him.
I said, “Dad, you have to look at me when you talk to me.”
“No, I don’t,” he said.
“Yes, you do,” I answered. “Otherwise, how can you understand me?”
My parents had me tested and discovered my profound hearing loss. Experts told Mom and Dad my loss was so severe, I’d be lucky to hold a job as a janitor. They also recommended putting me in a school for the deaf.
But my parents pushed back and refused to do this. They fought to enroll me in the public school system. I ended up being the first person with a profound hearing loss mainstreamed in my northern Chicago suburb. Although I did well, every year my parents had to fight to keep me there. I ended up graduating from high school with the highest honors.
Still, my experience was very different from that of my hearing peers. I had weekly speech therapy, which I hated. I missed out on movies, assembly speakers, PA announcements and more. Bullies taunted me. Some kids wouldn’t include me because I was the deaf kid. Others would speak with their hands over their mouths so I couldn’t see what they were saying.
What allowed me to be successful were my friends. They treated me normally. And my parents instilled in me the belief that I could do whatever I wanted.
When I applied to college, schools couldn’t believe I was deaf. The dean of one large Midwestern school interviewed me in person, then accepted me on the spot. I turned down the offer and enrolled at Northwestern University.
There, I continued to excel. I played intercollegiate football, became involved in organizations and had many friends.
My second year, I applied for an Illinois scholarship for people with disabilities. The woman who interviewed me made me promise that if I became a physician, I’d learn American Sign Language so I could communicate with the deaf. After receiving the scholarship, I made sure to follow through on my promise.
During my senior year, I applied to 12 medical schools, but got only two interviews. Although my grades, activities and MCATs were better than many peers who were accepted, I didn’t get any acceptance letters.
So I stayed at Northwestern and attended its graduate school of biology. I did well and began my application process to medical school again. This time, I applied to 35 schools. I got several interviews, one of which was at Rutgers University. Two years earlier, Rutgers accepted a deaf student. To my knowledge, that student became the second deaf American to graduate from medical school. I interviewed with the university and was accepted.
All the other 34 schools rejected my application.
My first two years of medical school were classroom- and laboratory-based. The summer after my first year, I made good on my promise and learned sign language by going to a local deaf club.
After two years at Rutgers, I transferred to Washington University in St. Louis.
My clinical years there were hard, because I depend on lipreading. It was especially difficult during rounds where people didn’t face me or when I was in an operating room where everyone wore masks. I learned the material by preparing ahead of time and asking many questions after.
At Washington University, I met the love of my life, a classmate named Barbara Reed. We got married two days after our graduation from medical school, when I became the third deaf American physician.
My specialty is family medicine. It is clearly the right choice for me. As a husband and a father of two wonderful daughters, I enjoy caring for people of all ages. I have treated some families for over 25 years. It’s a very humbling but rewarding career for which I am grateful.
A special part of my practice is that I care for many deaf and hard of hearing persons. I understand what they are going through. My research has shown that this community has poorer health, social and educational outcomes. By providing specialized care for them, I try to provide this community with better health care opportunities. Some of my patients drive two or three hours to see me.
I also mentor deaf and hard of hearing physicians in training. It is so important that they know they can do it. I connect them with additional mentors for emotional support and also recommend useful technologies that may help them in their practices.
In addition to my medical practice, I am the department chair of family medicine at the University of Michigan. My family established a nonprofit foundation in honor of my mother to provide college scholarships for students with severe hearing loss.
My life has been a wonderful journey. My parents made all the difference by refusing to believe my hearing loss was an insurmountable barrier.
One of my favorite sayings is “Expect great things and great things happen.” Maybe I am an example of that. If you want to make progress and have an impact, you have to be willing to go out and drive.
You may not make it, but then you try again.