Phoenix

(Excuse the melodramatic title, I’m just trying to be artsy).

I meant to write this post a few weeks back, but between finals, holiday events, and traveling between school and home, I couldn’t sit down long enough to let the words out.

As many Californians are keenly aware of, a sizable portion of our state was ravaged by wildfires this past November. One of the sites of the fires burned down a summer camp I had attended as a kid/teenager — Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop. The tremendous strength of the CHK and Hilltop community has become abundantly clear in the past few weeks, as evidenced by the Facebook page created to restore the camps, the emails promising that camp will go on, albeit at another site, and the stories I have heard from friends that I have kept in contact with.

CHK holds a very near and dear place in my heart, but likely not for the same reasons it did for others. Don’t get me wrong, I loved camp too — or at least the 25% of camp I actually experienced. As a deaf person, a mainstream summer camp is one of the hardest auditory environments to experience. It is a constant wash of auditory input that even the strongest of hearing aids can struggle to sort out. Mess hall chatter, hushed whispers after lights out, roaring but garbled chants, songs (and songs in another language), boomy microphones or worse yet, large crowds around one small person trying to yell out the schedule for the day, pool days (couldn’t get my hearing aids wet back in the day) — the list goes on.

I attended camp from age 8-15. I was 15 when I got my cochlear implant, due in large part, to camp.

Camp was thrilling, but utterly exhausting. Whatever thin strand of hope I had been clinging on to about how my hearing aids were sufficient was shredded into smithereens that first meal in the dining hall. Thanks to its fun, social atmosphere, camp literally offered me no respite from auditory input. It wasn’t like school, where I could come home, start playing The Sims™ and zone out for a while. I always had to be “on” and trying my best to sort out body language, context cues and lip-read. For the sake of keeping up with social cues, I would laugh when others would laugh, nod emphatically when someone seemed to be talking, smile during songs/cheers so it wouldn’t be obvious I had no idea what the words were, and avoid the pool/beach so I wouldn’t have to take out my hearing aids.

I didn’t exactly keep my hearing loss a secret. I would tell friends about my story so they could understand why I might behave weirdly during any of the events listed above. For the most part, people were very understanding and sweet. But what 8 year old is emotionally savvy enough to always remember their deaf friend when it is far more exciting to keep up with their non-deaf friends? I mean no shade towards anyone I attended camp with — it is a lot to ask of anyone, even full-grown adults. And despite this huge favor I asked of people, many of them did an excellent job trying to help me. One friend recently reminded me that she had kept a notebook for me, in which she would transcribe what was going on so I could keep up, a kindness beyond our age at the time.

It was camp that gave me the desire to hear better the way no other experience in my life had. Five years of being told I qualified for a cochlear implant and five years of rejecting it on the premise of feeling like cochlear implants were for people “more deaf than I was” were undone in 26 days — the length of my final summer as a camper at the age of 15. I finally wanted more for myself and I was finally okay with admitting that, all thanks to a camp that is no longer there anymore.

But I associate camp as a place of rebirth. Although I didn’t actually receive my implant at camp, I will forever correlate Camp Hess Kramer as the place where my life changed from the time before my implant to the time after my implant. I would not be anywhere close to where I am today if not for the realization that camp helped me come to.

Now, it is time for camp itself to start it’s second chapter. I have no doubt that camp will always continue to go on, and will always continue to make a change in the hearts of it’s campers. We could be in Malibu or we could be in the boonies, but camp is people, camp is a feeling, and camp is a fresh start. I owe my current life to my experiences at CHK 1.0, but CHK 2.0 — I can’t wait to meet you!

Ready, Willing, and Disable

Hello Friends!

It has been a while since I have made a post here, but there’s good news! I passed my first class of medical school. So that must be 1 down, about 123908 classes to go? Better yet, let’s not count. I am now in the throes of “Q1,” which, for those of you not savvy to how the quarter system works, means that I am in first of the three quarters that make up an academic year.

I finally feel like I am in “real” medical school in many ways. The need to organize my work or else something doesn’t get done and always having a ton of things to do/review are new staples in my life, but so are all the amazing people I get to attend class with and learn from every day. I was recently asked by an interviewee at my school (another crazy moment where I realized that I am actually IN medical school and people are looking to ME for advice on how to get in) what my favorite part of going to my particular medical school was. There was no hesitation: the people. Classmates, if you are reading this — thank you for being you — for sharing your personalities, stories, schedules, leftover food and emergency safety pins.

On a deeper note, I have begun to learn what it means to be a physician. My classmates and I surely all have different interpretations of what this means. And I don’t think any of us have the wrong interpretation — just different interpretations shaped by our own individual experiences. For a smaller subset of my medical school, myself included, we have begun to ponder what it means to be a physician with a disability.

We are underrepresented and largely forgotten, because no one likes to be reminded of what could be perceived of as a “failure of biology” when they are themselves trying to seek treatment for biological processes that require medical intervention. We make people uncomfortable outside the examination room, so imagine what it might be like inside the examination room. People look to their doctors to be healthy, strong, and smart. Of course, those with disabilities can be very smart — but a lot of people have an instinctive association in their heads that we aren’t.

I can only speak for myself, but I wouldn’t be surprised, if my fellow “disabled” classmates weren’t already accustomed to immediate judgement before we even open our mouths to speak. I know am. At the same time, I consider myself to be very privileged, because deafness is more of a hidden disability. It can’t necessarily be ascertained visually in all cases. For me, someone who doesn’t use sign language and who has long hair that covers her ears, my disability is largely hidden.

It is ironic, though, because I want to go into a field that requires the unmasking of my disability to inspire patients. I want to help other people hear again as a neurotologist (fancy word for ear doctor), and I actively want my patients to be able to look at me and be comforted that whatever scary surgery or medical intervention they are considering could actually work.  However, this is a competitive field and my ability to enter it will depend largely on my performance, which I can prepare for but not predict. I ahve often thought about what I might do if I can’t be a neurotologist. And that is when I think I must hide my disability again. It feels sometimes that deafness only makes sense when I can make an example out of myself with it, when it can lend credence to recommendations for help or not. When my disability has no common sense place in a practice — like if I went into dermatology or orthopedics or pediatrics or internal medicine — my deafness goes back to being something that serves to confuse rather than inspire.

I realize that I am putting words into a lot of future patients’ mouths, and that they may not react negatively to my disability. On the flip side, even if I were to become a neurotologist, my disability may still be perceived negatively.

Ultimately, I cannot control what my patients will think of me. What I can control is how I present myself, how I educate myself, and how I broach the topic of my deafness, should it come up in patient encounters. I need to decide where my rights as an individual with a disability ends and the patient’s right to know the capabilities of their doctor begins. I need to surround myself with mentors who believe in me and support me, and I have already begun to do so. I have also searched for people like me who have successful careers as physicians, and I am so pleased to report that there are several doctors in the U.S. with cochlear implants, and a large number of health professionals with hearing loss. It can be done and it will be done again — by me!

I must always bear the burden of having to go one step further than my non-disabled classmates, but I feel that going this distance is a privilege and testament to the tireless dedication of those who have led me to where I am today. For those who are kind enough to give me a chance to be their doctor, I cannot wait to share empathy, experiences and stories with them — to be able to get on their level and shatter the white coat barrier to say “hey, I get it, I’ve been there” whether I am talking to someone with hearing loss or someone who has been a patient with any kind of diagnosis that changes their lives — that’s a lot of patient’s lives that I can impact!

I am ready, willing, and (dis)ABLE.

The Still Point

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only dance. I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where. And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.,” — T.S. Eliot

Whoa, starting with a real heavy quote here. I am always so moved by it, though, and never more so than today. I can count on one hand the number of moments I’ve had where my life seems to take a deep breath — the type of deep breath you take before you do something utterly different and life-changing.

Today is the day before I embark upon my journey towards becoming a doctor. Actually, there’s a handful of administrators at my school who will tell you that, in attending orientation and my white coat ceremony, I have already embarked on this journey. I do not mean to undermine the deep significance of either of these things. I am truly humbled by the opportunity to don a white coat with my peers, to hear speeches from those whose journeys came before mine, and to appreciate the value and position in society that a white coat gives a person. However, to me, a white coat without an education is just a prop — I can’t possibly live up to its meaning just yet. So therefore, I feel that tomorrow, the day I start my medical school classes, is the first day of the rest of my life. I’ve been watching the clock all day, somewhat anxiously, watching it tick toward this moment. I am keenly aware that I am currently suspended at the still point.

T.S. Eliot is right though — “at the still point, there the dance is.” I interpret this “dancing” very metaphorically (although if you saw me at last night’s post-orientation party, I think you could say I embodied the literal meaning of dancing). I am dancing — I am moving, adjusting, and stretching my mind and soul to accept the changes that have already happened in my life: leaving Southern California for the first time, meeting new people, and getting oriented to my new surroundings. At the same time, I am stretching my mind and soul to prepare for the changes that are still to come: becoming a medical student, handling the workload, creating a work-life balance, and carving out a home for myself in Northern California.

There’s a lot to this dance. There’s the simple stuff, like vacuuming and getting used to living without a dishwasher. Completing all the on-boarding requirements at my school, such as online HIPAA trainings and getting my student I.D. And then there’s the heavier stuff: negotiating long distance relationships with my loved ones, accepting the gravity of what I am about to do, and choosing opportunities, albeit uncomfortable ones, to grow.

There’s another way to look at the word “dancing” in this context. Dancing implies joy and celebration, and there is a lot of that too. There is joy in coming together with classmates and families to applaud our accomplishments thus far, and to applaud the choices we have decided to make in becoming a doctor. There is pride in finding yourself among a group of people you feel you belong to and who can sustain your intellectual curiosity while also fulfilling your desire to have fun. There is quiet satisfaction in knowing you chose to take a leap and being able to adapt to the changes the leap caused in your life. There is contentment in allowing yourself to choose a new place and new people as your home.

It is fascinating to think about all the changes that have happened and all the new variables that have entered my life in the past week. But — this is my favorite part — we haven’t even started yet. What a joy it is to have a day like today, where I can take the time to look backwards and forwards simultaneously, and feel gratitude for both dimensions.

Today, I am still. Tomorrow, I will be ready.