THE DOCTOR IS DEAF BUT HE LISTENS WELL: Jason Sobel's inability to hear creates challenges and helps him relate to patients
By DAVID WAHLBERG
The Ann Arbor News. November, 26, 2000. Reprinted with permission.
Jason Sobel scurries down the halls of St. Joseph Mercy Hospital like an Olympic speed walker, his long, white coat flapping in his wake.
A patient chart in one hand, a pager in the other, a stethoscope hanging out of his pocket, Sobel is the quintessential physician-on-the-go in his first rear of training.
A closer look reveals what sets him apart: The pager is a vibrating one; the stethoscope has an amplifier; hearing aids hang from his ears; and when he talks with patients, he looks directly at their lips.
Sobel is one of the nation's few deaf doctors and the first one at St. Joseph.
His inability to hear creates challenges, but Sobel said his deafness makes him better able to relate to patients. He reads their lips or watches an interpreter who mouths their words for him; he doesn't know sign language.
"I've been in a lot of situations where I feel isolated, " said Sobel, 27. "It makes me more sensitive to patients when they feel isolated and don't know what is happening to them."
Patients seem to agree. "He does his job very well, and he seems really devoted," said 54-year-old George Nagy of Flint, at St. Joseph recently for complications from diabetes.
"He's an awfully nice fella," added John Lytle, 76, of Howell, hospitalized for balance problems. "I can communicate with him just fine. "
Though Sobel did well in medical school at Boston University, he had trouble finding hospitals that would hire him for his residency, the severaL years of training required before medical school graduates can work on their own. Several programs said his special accommodations would cost too much, he said.
St. Joseph jumped at the chance to get him, said Jeff Sanfield, chairman of the internal medicine department, in which Sobel works. Interpreters, special phones and computer equipment will cost the hospital about $115,000 this year, but Sobel is worth it, Sanfield said.
"In a world where patients sometimes feel their physicians are not empathetic, this is a doctor who is naturally empathetic," Sanfield said.
"He has to listen. His world is dependent on it. If anything, he's less likely to make a communication error than some physicians whose ears work perfectly."
Theresa Vettese, residency program director, said Sobel also is a good leader. When some residents complained that it was confusing to admit new patients and treat old patients at the same time, Sobel proposed a system that divided the two responsibilities among two groups of residents, Vettese said.
"He's just a great guy, with great ideas," she said.
The son of an ear, nose and throat doctor from Denver, Sobel is a triplet who was born deaf. His two sisters have no hearing loss. His parents raised him to be aural, not deaf; the terms are used in the hearing-impaired community to differentiate between those who read lips and those who sign. .
They wanted me to have more options," Sobel said. He now wishes he could sign, however, so he could better relate to deaf people. He's hoping to learn sign language once his hectic schedule as a resident subsides.
Sobel is considered severely to profoundly hearing-impaired. He picks up some sounds, but they are muffled. His own voice also is somewhat muted, since he learned to speak by mimicking people's lips instead of their sounds. But it's still easy to understand him.
He has chosen not to get a cochlear implant-which converts sound to electrical signals and helps many deaf people hear because he said its mechanical sounds would force him to relearn how to speak.
When Sobel is talking one-on-one in a relatively quiet room, he reads lips and hears enough of the person's voice to pick up the whole conversation.
But on a busy hospital wing or in an operating room where surgeons wear masks over their mouths Sobel needs assistance. That's where the interpreters come in. They look at Sobel and mouth the words of those speaking.
Five interpreters are taking shifts with Sobel at St. Joseph, for a total of about 80 hours a week. They accompany him most of the time, but Sobel sometimes chooses to communicate without them.
When talking with Lytle, the patient from Howell, for example, Sobel listened on his own. With Nagy, the Flint patient, however, Sobel used an interpreter, as Nagy has a beard that covers part of his mouth and tends to speak down to his chest.
Interpreting for a doctor can be tough, said Barbara Hinson, one of Sobel's interpreters. She has never worked for a doctor before and doesn't have a medical background.
"I've been studying lot of medica1 books," she said. "A lot of medicines and procedures sound alike, so you have to make sure you get that information clear."
Phone calls are especially challenging. When Sobel makes a call, Hinson places a recording device on the phone and listens to the conversation. While the other person speaks, she mouths the words to Sobel. She occasionally has to ask for something to be repeated, but the system is more efficient that using special phones for the hearing-impaired, Sobel said.
Philip Zazove, a hearing-impaired doctor at the University of Michigan, met Sobel last spring and put him up while he was looking for an apartment.
Zazove started at U-M in 1989, when there were very few deaf doctors nationwide. Now there are about 20, according to American Medical Professionals with Hearing Loss. Zazove said Sobel will grow more comfortable navigating the complex medical system as a deaf person once he has more experience.
The key for Jason is to learn the best way for him to deal with different situations, and that will take time," Zazove said. "He also needs to realize that it can be done, but it takes perseverance and dedication.
SobeI said be certainly has the motivation for medicine, largely because he wants to follow in his father's footsteps. Plus, be likes the intellectual challenge of the job and the ability to educate patients on how to better lake care of themselves.
Sobel initially intended to pursue neurology but now plans to stay in internal medicine, where he'll have even more patient contact. He'll be at St. Joseph for at least two more years.
His interaction with patients this year has made him feel confident that be can be a good doctor, be said. "They usually don't say anything (about my hearing impairment)," Sobel said. "Mostly, they just say 'Get me better and get me out of the hospital.'"