Deaf veterinary student hears the call

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Deaf veterinary student hears the call

After experiencing a lack of veterinary resources in rural Alaska, veterinary student Kimi Ross didn't let deafness squelch her desire to provide needed care.
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Dec 31, 2013
Kimi Ross, center, the first deaf student at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, sits in veterinary systemic pathology class. Fellow student Seth Bynum, left, helps take notes.

Kimi Ross, the first deaf student to attend Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Pullman, Wash., doesn’t have to hear whines, snarls and hisses to know when an animal is distressed. She uses her alert eyes, sturdy hands and big heart. And after she graduates in two years, reindeer, yaks and Alaska natives stand to benefit.

Ross, 46, was diagnosed with an unexplained hearing deficit at age 10 that has gradually worsened. Hearing aids helped for a decade, enabling her to study violin and earn a degree in music at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif.

“People’s eyes get big when I tell them I had planned to teach violin. After all, here I am: deaf!” she says. Her speech is deliberate and punctuated with chuckles as she peers intently toward her listener’s face to read lips. She prefers to describe herself as deaf rather than hearing-impaired: “It is what it is,” she says.

Warning bells

When Ross was about 20, she was sitting under a tree reading as blackbirds flitted about when she realized the natural world had gone quiet. “Blackbirds are noisy. When I couldn’t hear them, I figured it was the batteries in my hearing aids so I went and replaced them,” she says. “When that didn’t help, I thought the aid itself was broken. You could say I was in denial about the progressiveness of my hearing loss.”

Eventually, though, Ross accepted the hard truth: The hearing aids that had long amplified the timbre of her mother’s voice, the trilling of blackbirds, the bowing of a violin no longer helped. Her hearing impairment had become so pronounced that few meaningful sounds were reaching her ears. “There wasn’t much left to amplify,” she says. So she removed the hearing aids for good. “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t scare me.”

Fitting in

Afflicted by the third most common physical condition after arthritis and heart disease, Ross was forced to abandon her dream of teaching music. With willpower as an ally and a trained black Labrador named Shadow as her guide, she enrolled at the University of Arizona for a master’s degree in special education. There, surrounded by other deaf people, she learned American Sign Language and became more proficient at “speech reading,” so-called because it involves reading another person’s gestures and expressions as well as lips.

Sign language liberated her from the social isolation she’d felt in a world brimming with mumbo-jumbo, she says. Even with hearing aids, “I couldn’t figure out why people mumbled so much,” she says. “Then, if I didn’t respond, they thought I was rude.”

True North

After graduating, Ross worked as a special education teacher on a Navajo reservation and then made a geographically vertical leap to teach in rural Alaska. Instead of feeling isolated by distance, culture and cold winters, “I felt like I finally found home,” she says.

Working in the Inupiaq Eskimo village of Kobuk, she met her husband, Fred, also a teacher. When the couple began raising sled dogs, no veterinarians worked nearby to spay and neuter them. Then a village-hopping “bush vet” showed up and performed the surgeries on Ross’s kitchen table. “That’s how it’s done in rural Alaska when there’s nothing else to work with,” she says. “It was my introduction to veterinary medicine.”

Ross and her husband eventually settled near the tiny indigenous village of Chistochina, where residents live off fish from rivers and game animals from the abundant wilderness. Secluded towns and villages scattered across Oregon-sized regions present all kinds of problems when there’s little or no access to veterinary care, Ross says. These range from unwanted dogs running in packs and biting people to animals freezing and starving to death to the threat of rabies.

So Ross decided to do something about it. With her signature determination in tow—along with a truck full of furniture and a horse trailer carrying kennels of sled dogs—she and her husband left Alaska for Pullman. After researching the area and the school, she planned to enroll at WSU’s veterinary college.

“We took a big chance,” she says. “I’m older. I’m deaf. I wasn’t sure if it would work.”

Helping hands

Several years later, Ross remains enraptured by the soft beauty of the Palouse region north of Pullman and buoyed by its supportive people, she says. Now in her second year of veterinary school, she grasps the instructions—including complex and hard-to-spell science terms—with help from sign language interpreters, classmates who sign and take notes, and methodical, patient professors.

Steve Hines, DVM, PhD, DACVP, professor of veterinary microbiology and pathology who has taught at WSU for 24 years, says having Ross in his systemic pathology class this semester has enriched his teaching skills. “During lectures, I’ll stop and check in with Kimi and the entire class to ask if they’re following my pace and whether I need to re-explain anything,” he says. “I’m more mindful of what I’m presenting and how I’m presenting it.”

Returning to Alaska

After Ross graduates, she plans to work as a veterinarian in Alaska, traveling to rural areas where veterinary care is spread thin. Not only will she help animals, she’ll help people take care of them, she says.

“In a way, I can go back to what I love doing, which is teaching,” she says. “I’ll educate clients about having healthy relationships with their sled dogs, their yaks, their reindeer and goats—you name it.”

Ironically, Ross’ deafness will make her a terrific communicator, Hines says.

“Kimi really engages when she communicates. By focusing so hard, she makes you feel like you’re the only one around and that you really matter,” he says. “Humans and animals alike will connect with her.”

Story courtesy of Washington State University News.