This Doctor Can: The listening doctor

Neurology registrar Dr Helen Grote talks about how her deafness has helped her hear those with disabilities.

I’ve been profoundly deaf since birth but, for a variety of reasons, my diagnosis was a very late one. The gift of hearing aids and speech therapy from a wonderful peripatetic teacher when I was 3 years old changed my life, enabling me to access mainstream education and later, medical school at Oxford and Cambridge. 

My inspiration to pursue a medical career came from two sources – I’d always loved fly-on-the wall medical documentaries, such as ‘Jimmy’s’ and ‘Doctors to be’ – and a stint of community service in an A&E department at the age of 15 as part of the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme confirmed my desire to train as a doctor. 

Nevertheless, my path through medical school and postgraduate training hasn’t always been easy. I rely a lot on equipment including an adapted stethoscope, bleeps with a vibrate function, radio microphones for lectures, as well an adapted fire alarm and alarm clock at home.

Constantly having to concentrate and lip-read is tiring. Being deaf is also hugely isolating. It isn’t easy to participate in group conversations, or to socialise in environments with background noise. I don’t enjoy using telephones either as I can’t lip-read.

Dr Helen Grote

Constantly having to concentrate and lip-read is tiring. Being deaf is also hugely isolating. It isn’t easy to participate in group conversations, or to socialise in environments with background noise. I don’t enjoy using telephones either as I can’t lip-read.
 
The combination of antisocial rotas, night shifts, frequent hospital moves, postgraduate exams and future career uncertainty is difficult for any junior doctor; and navigating this without the support I needed in view of my deafness rapidly became intolerable during core medical training.

One consultant even told me just to wear a badge to remind everyone I was deaf. It wasn’t a badge I needed; I needed colleagues to face me so I could lip read, to ensure I was included in discussions about patients – and provision of equipment such as a vibrating bleep – so I could do my job properly. 

After a brief period of training in clinical genetics, I changed specialty to neurology. The encouragement from consultant colleagues and peers at both St. George’s and Imperial has really given me the This Doctor Can [do] attitude that I need – not just to survive but to thrive in medicine.

With the right equipment and support, I know that I’m just as capable and competent as my colleagues. I’ve absolutely no regrets about my chosen career path; being a doctor is a huge privilege and I love the variety of patients and academic interest neurology provides.

Dr Helen Grote

With the right equipment and support, I know that I’m just as capable and competent as my colleagues. I’ve absolutely no regrets about my chosen career path; being a doctor is a huge privilege and I love the variety of patients and academic interest neurology provides. 

My deafness not only provides me with some understanding of the barriers and difficulties my patients with disabilities face. It has also given me the resolve to help create a fairer, more equitable environment wherever I work. 

It’s important that minority groups, and those with disabilities aren’t just there as token proof of political correctness; but that everyone is genuinely included and provided with the workplace environment and support they need to thrive, enjoy their work, and reach their potential.

It’s great to be able to support the RCP’s This Doctor Can campaign; after all, when we work together – and lift each other up – then everyone benefits – our patients included. 

Would you like to share your experience of becoming a doctor? Get in touch on Twitter via @thisdoctorcan.