The Deafblind Medical Student Following Her Dream

Siobhan Harris

Disclosures

October 30, 2019

It takes determination and hard work to become a doctor. That's particularly true for 25-year-old Alexandra Adams. She's a fourth-year medical student who's deafblind.

Alexandra was born deaf in both ears and with vision of less than 5% in her left eye and no vision in her right eye.

   

Alexandra Adams

The Cardiff University student uses a Bluetooth stethoscope connected wirelessly to her hearing aids and has a folding cane. Alexandra has faced discrimination but won't let her disabilities prevent her from pursuing her goal.

She's been to the US to meet other disabled medical professionals, including five blind doctors and one deaf doctor. Alexandra also documents and celebrates diversity in her nationwide campaign Faces of the NHS and has recently led a TED talk.

Medscape UK spoke to her about her life and ambitions.

Q&A

Why and when did you decide you wanted to be a doctor?

I knew from an early age I wanted to care for and help people. But it was my experiences as a patient that made me understand what makes a good, and what makes a bad doctor.

I was a GB swimmer training towards London 2012 when my life changed. I ended up in hospital for a year and a half aged 16 and had to have 20 stomach surgeries.

A group of doctors came around the bed every day, looked at their notes and talked amongst themselves and not once would they address me and tell me what was going on. I was really scared, as you can imagine. One day a junior doctor came back and asked me if I was ok and I just burst into tears and said 'No, not really I have no idea what's happening'.

She got up, closed the curtains around the bed, lifted her blouse and showed me a massive scar along her ribs and said, 'I know how you feel'.

That doctor taught me that it's empathy that makes a really good doctor, not blood tests or clinical results but sitting down and treating a patient as a human being. I thought, 'I could do that'.

Did you ever think you wouldn't be able to do it?

I've always been one of those optimistic people. I think to myself there's always a way. Obviously, I knew I'd never become a surgeon, I just have to be realistic at the same time as reaching for my goals.  After I'd had my own surgery, I'd missed so much school I was too old to go back to mainstream education so I went to a special educational needs school for blind and visually impaired people.

Not in a negative way, but they put us into a bubble and I was told not to even bother trying to go to medical school. They didn't want to see us get hurt or discriminated against in the big wide world. But when people tell me I can't do something, I tend to do the opposite, to prove both to myself and to others that they're wrong!

How do you overcome your sight and hearing impairments in a medical setting?

I'm in fourth year now and I'm doing everything all of the other medical students at my level are expected to do. It's all about finding alternative ways to do things. I've got a Bluetooth stethoscope, I don’t put it into my ears, it's like the end of a stethoscope which I use in conjunction with a special setting on my hearing aids. When I'm fitting a cannula, I predominantly use touch to find veins, as being visually impaired has meant my sense of touch is heightened, which can be a great advantage. My biggest challenge to overcome is not my disabilities but people's ignorance and misunderstandings of them.

Can you describe some of the negative reactions you've had?

On my first day on placement a senior doctor asked me to imagine I was a patient and asked would I want a disabled doctor looking after me? Then said 'Absolutely not' and sent me home. Another looked at me and said, 'What are you doing with the patient's cane?' When I explained that it was mine, instead of taking that on board, they said, in front of everyone, 'I don’t want you touching my patients'.

At the same time though, I've met some really lovely colleagues on the wards. I was working at a day hospital recently and one of the nurses handed me a little magnifying glass the size and shape of a credit card. She said she wondered if it would be of any use to me. It really was, and that action made my week. A few weeks ago, the F1 I was working with asked if I wanted him to enlarge my ward list and print it out for me. I was quite emotional, because no one had ever suggested that to me before, but that was the simplest thing someone could do to make my life easier. Little gestures like that can make a real difference.

What reaction to you generally get from patients?

Patients have been wonderful. They either see me as any other medical student or else they are curious and ask questions, which I really like. After all, it's better to ask questions than just make assumptions. I'm on geriatrics at the moment and my white cane has created great small talk. One patient thought I was a professional drummer! They see me as being more human as I know what it feels like to be exposed to greater difficulties than patients often experience through their illnesses. To be able to provide empathy, through my experience of disability and serious illness, has no doubt helped me relate more closely to my patients.

You’ve visited the US and met visually and hearing-impaired medics there, what was their experience like?

Yes, I went to the States in 2017 where I met five blind doctors and one deaf doctor. They included cardiologists, surgeons and anaesthetists. They were finding ways to overcome their disabilities through technology. There seemed to be more of a willingness of people around them to help them.

In the UK, you have to learn everything first before specialising. For example, if you can't read an X-ray you can't become a psychiatrist even though you'd never see one in your working life. The system's not the same in the US. The medical training system in the UK is more rigid.

What area of medicine would you like to specialise in?

I'm not going to be a neurosurgeon, let's be honest! Palliative medicine is a field which is realistic for me. I think it's more about treating patients as individuals and helping to manage them more holistically. That's why I came into medicine, to care for people. I've had bad personal experience of palliative care for a relative; it made me cross and upset and it made me determined to be part of a system that ensures it doesn’t happen to other patients.

What's your Faces of the NHS project about?

That all started in January 2019 when I was told I didn't look like a medical student, because I have a white cane and hearing aids. So, I thought I'd explore that theme a bit more widely. The Faces of the NHS is about celebrating diversity and how there should be no set image attached to people working in the NHS. So, I have been travelling around the UK taking portraiture photos of NHS staff, past, present, and future and asking them to contribute a bit of their back story. I've got about 500 photos so far and one day, once it's got even bigger, I hope to put it into one huge montage, and make it into a book.

It was all about turning my negative experiences into a positive. I've also recently led a TED talk on why it's important that everyone in the NHS is valued.

Do you feel you are blazing a trail for other people with disabilities who want to go into medicine?

I'm not sure about that. I'm just an ordinary person at the end of the day. I've been in the media a lot recently and there have been a few negative comments: hatred and disbelief over me training to be a doctor. But I have had a lot of positive comments too, especially from parents of children with disabilities who've read my story and now hope their children can do anything they want to do, and from those who support the need to shift cultural and social perceptions in our workplaces, more generally.

When I was at blind school, in my bubble, many of my friends and peers there were so talented but they were told they couldn’t do what they wanted because of their disabilities. They never went on to find out if they really could. So, I hope by following my dream to become a doctor I have changed people's perspectives.

Comments

3090D553-9492-4563-8681-AD288FA52ACE
Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.
Post as:

processing....