Sign Language

How One Deaf Medical Student Overcame All Odds

How One Deaf Medical Student Overcame All Odds

There’s nothing quite like watching a friend in the Deaf community achieve their dreams. But when that person is your own brother? That feeling is ten times better.

I recently had the chance to interview my incredible brother Dr. Zachary Featherstone about his journey of becoming an osteopathic physician. Zach is a postdoctoral research fellow at Deaf Health Communication and Quality of Life Research Lab at Gallaudet University. He graduated from medical school at Pacific Northwest University from the College of Osteopathic Medicine. His residency in primary care begins in 2019.

I can’t even begin to describe all the things Zach has accomplished or how much he had to do to get where he is today. So I thought the easiest way to share his story was to let Zach tell it himself. Here’s how our interview unfolded:

Interview Transcript

JV: Hello my name is JV from GoReact. I have my brother here with me, Zach Featherstone. Same last name of course! Now he’s finished medical school and is looking for a residency. Usually it’s a two-year internship.

Zach: No, it’s usually two years or more. Really, it’s a three-year-long internship. Actually a minimum of three years!

JV: Oh, so that’s a lot of years of residency work to do right?

Zach: Really it depends on what you specialize in, for example, if you want to be a primary doctor, pediatrician, or family care. Now these specialties usually take up to three years in residency. But if you want to specialize in surgery it’s a minimum of five years. If you want to be a cardiologist it’s a full focused eight year internship.

JV: So, we have a lot of questions for Zach. Remember everyone, there was so much media attention surfacing about Zach and his medical journey. We want to know what’s up with him now. Like the phrase “Where’s Waldo?” What’s he been up to since? He’s here now, so let’s dig in! What’s up, Zach? How’s your experience been so far?

Zach: It’s funny how you phrased it. Yes, I am here now. I really dove into medical school, so that’s been my main focus every day. It was a four-year program for my internship. The first two years was a lot of book studying and tests. The third and fourth year was awesome. You get to rotate shadowing doctors in different specialties every two-six weeks. It’s real cool. For example, you get to shadow a surgeon for six weeks, then an OBGYN the next six weeks and help deliver babies, which was fun!

JV: Have you felt like you’ve already been able to apply your medical skills, like what you’ve learned from school thus far?

Zach: I’ve applied a little bit. I’m not sure I understand your question, can you elaborate on that?

JV: For example you’ve already experienced delivering a baby right? Did you deliver your own baby?

Zach: Oh, no I didn’t deliver my own baby. I decided not to because if something happens my wife would hold it over my head forever! I don’t want to be blamed for making a wrong decision in that kind of situation regarding my own kids. Really it’s not my role in that moment. I did think about it, but at that moment in life my role is being my wife’s husband and not her doctor. I do look forward to the day when one of my children cuts themselves bad enough, and I say “come on over and I’ll stitch you up!” Although it hasn’t happened yet. Darn!

JV: Dang it! You should tell your kids to go jump off a hill, or something stupid and accidentally injure themselves haha!

Zach: Although I don’t have any lidocaine shots at home to numb the area to lessen the pain from the stitches. So that would be too painful.

JV: Toughen them up!

Zach: I can try that!

JV: Okay, so you have a total of four years of medical school and two years of shadowing doctors. At this point which specialty is your favorite? What have you enjoyed the most?

Zach: Really, I like them all. They all have something unique about each of them. For example, an orthopedics doctor (who specializes in bones) during an operation you can see the specific bones, separate muscles fibers and tendons inside the body with your own eye.

In medical school we opened up a cadaver, and when you operate on their body it’s more stiff, so it’s harder to differentiate everything. There’s no flow of blood in their veins or heart pumping, unlike a living body. You have to be more fragile with a living body too.

I remember one time a patient was in surgery because he had broke his femur bone. There was an orthopedic doctor operating on him to replace his hip. To operate the doctor had to disconnect his pelvis bone first, and next sawed down the femur bone to attach the metal probe inside of it. The doctor had a hammer in his hand and motioned for me to come over and watch, so I did. The orthopedic doctor starts hammering away in full force on the femur bone to connect the metal probe to the pelvis. Now for the doctor it was a normal procedure, but for me I thought you had to be a lot softer hammering on human bones. So I learned that day that you don’t. But orthopedic doctors know their stuff! They know their bones! It’s amazing how durable and resilient our bodies are, and how our bodies are designed.

Another specialty I like is urology.

JV: What is a urologist?

Zach: A urologist is a doctor that specializes in working with men’s private areas, specifically their penis and scrotum. Now I will be signing very visually. Often there are patients who came with a condition called Hydrocele, where fluid fills up in the scrotum. Sometimes there is no cause for this, it happens more commonly to men 50 and older. I’ve seen at least 20-25 of these types of surgeries. It’s a cool procedure.

Patient’s usually finally force themselves into the doctor office after the ball sac has retained so much fluid they must get it fixed. Sometimes I’ve seen it so bad that one of their ball sacks is sagging so far down that when they sit on the toilet to go to the bathroom it sags into the toilet bowl water. They’ve waited that long to go to the doctor to get it fixed! I’ve seen one patient have so much fluid retained, that it was the size of a balloon!

JV: Wow, it took them to that point to finally go to the doctor? Wow!

Zach: To resolve this you make an incision on the skin and take out the scrotum-filled sac, and then wrap a towel around it and pop the scrotum-filled sac to release the fluid and it gushes out. Everything is finished in about 10-20 minutes. It’s really fascinating.

JV: That is interesting.

Zach: Yeah it’s interesting.

JV: In general we don’t really learn a lot about the medical field it’s very exclusive. Honestly, most of us probably avoid it too! At the same time it’s cool to learn about how amazing our bodies are, but also how easily you can damage them. It’s intriguing!

Zach: The OBGYN field is fun to watch also, especially C-sections. As a medical student it’s very hands on, you don’t just stand back and watch. Sometimes I assist with using the sutures and various tasks.

I remember one time, a patient came in for a colon surgery because his colon had ruptured and there was stool leaking into his abdomen. This was an emergency situation. The operating doctor told me to come help and hold the colon while he operated. I could feel it was solid and moving inside.

JV: Does it feel like a snake?

Zach: Yes, like a snake, it folds up that way also. We operated by clamping the ends of the colon outside of where the rupture was.

JV: Was it like pinching the ends shut?

Zach: Yes. Then I resected the colon and went ahead and unzipped and zipped the sides to make sure both the outside ends were shut tight. I cut out the middle part where the stool was leaking out, and then the doctor zipped together the two parts of the colon, and that was it!

Lots of cool things. Out of the three years I’ve been shadowing doctors I haven’t had even one doctor deny my assistance and inclusion in shadowing them.

JV: Not one, they’ve all been very welcoming?

Zach: Not one, they’ve all been very supportive and eager to teach me the ropes of being a doctor. Of course, the first week some were apprehensive of me working with them.

JV: Were they not sure how to accommodate you?

Zach: They just weren’t sure how to accommodate my needs, but they never denied my involvement. I think the main reason for this is because doctors in general tend to be very open-minded. Which is a valuable characteristic being a doctor. I think that helps us converse with a wide range of patients and face diverse situations.

JV: That was probably good for your third and fourth year, to see that people are open and willing to work with you, right?

Zach: Yes. One of the coolest and best exposures I got was when I was doing my wound treatment. By that, I don’t mean a sudden injury but rather a chronic wound. A chronic wound would be like how a diabetic handles sugar.

JV: Right, it’s a constant issue.

Zach: Another example would be pressure sores that build up over time from sitting too long. I had to clean it off. It was a lot of hand technique. The doctor would tell me “Go on do it yourself, I’ll watch you. So that part was gross and definitely not my favorite but that doctor was very experienced. He worked as a heart surgeon for 40 years, retired, and then began working in wound care because retirement bored him.

He was watching my technique that first day and told me “You need to become a heart surgeon.” I asked him, “What makes you say that?” “Your hand technique is really good.” I replied, “No, you’re just saying that.” “No,” he told me, “you need to become a heart surgeon.” He said the same thing the next day and over and over again for two weeks. I was wondering why he would say this and I realized it’s because I sign. I’m used to moving my hands in all different ways and it’s really a benefit of being Deaf.

JV: That’s true. Looking back on your overall experience up to now, what advice do you have for Deaf kids who want to become a doctor one day?

Zach: I’ve never been self-conscious about being Deaf. I’ve always confidently told people outright and I think that helps. If I was shy about it, people would be concerned and unsure how to handle it. But if I tell people “I’m Deaf” confidently, they react with a “what can we do?” attitude. That has been one of my biggest lessons of being Deaf. Other people can be of benefit to me, but I can also be of benefit to those around me. It’s not about how my Deafness negatively affects them, but of how I can be of benefit to them.

Secondly, you must learn how people prefer to be communicated with. If you’re awkward, they won’t want to work with you and it’s easy for them to ignore you. I’m not saying to butter them up. You need to learn how to approach people tactfully and match their communication style and preference.

Third, you need to have good English skills.

JV: Written English skills, like typing?

Zach: Yes. You need to be able to read and write. If you’re bad at scribing as a student, you won’t do well. When you write, you need to read too. Those are my three points of advice, with that third one being you need to be fluent in the English language. That doesn’t mean you need to speak, though. I knew two or three Deaf doctors who don’t speak and are still successful.

JV: Alright, I have one last question for you. We’ve discussed advice for Deaf children, now what is your advice for interpreters in the medical field?

Zach: Throughout medical school, I’ve had wonderful interpreters and bad interpreters. My first and second year, my interpreter was wonderful. There were no problems. My third and fourth year, I had six different interpreters. Three of the interpreters were designated interpreters, which means they were at my side at all times. Honestly, I didn’t have a good experience with their policies or their approach. They were a disruption to my process. They tried to get me to change my preferred work methods to fit their preferences and I told them, “No, you need to change what you’re doing to fit me.”

JV:  Right, it’s your major, not theirs.

Zach: Right, it was my profession, and I do things that way for a reason. For example, I always tell the interpreter that I will voice for myself two to three times, and if people still don’t understand, I’ll ask you to please voice for me. This is on purpose. I noticed that people are a little thrown off by the Deaf accent at first, so they’ll initially be confused and the interpreter will immediately try to voice for me, causing the patient to rely on the interpreter for the rest of the relationship. I don’t want that, so I prefer to try to voice again and then they typically understand me the rest of the time because they got used to my voice.

JV: You want them to be able to communicate with you.

Zach: The interpreters think they have to voice for me if the patient doesn’t immediately understand me. But that’s not the case, and it has a bad effect on my relationship with the patient when they do that.

JV: So you tell them, “It takes time, but allow me to control the situation,” which you can say because you’re the doctor.

Zach: Exactly. The other three were phenomenal interpreters and very humble. Each of them did exactly what I wanted and followed my instructions by matching my way of doing things. I didn’t have to explain it again and again each time. They did what I asked and I was able to trust them more and see them as equals. If they didn’t respect what I asked, I would look down on their abilities as interpreters. I know some interpreters won’t like that concept, but that’s my experience.

JV: Well, without you they don’t have a job, so it’s fine. You are the authority in this position, so I feel that you have the right to tell them what you want. And if they don’t want to follow then those interpreters aren’t the right fit. If you had a job interview and were able to communicate well and relate with the employer, then you can instinctively tell whether it’s a good fit or not. Maybe it’s the same situation for you. If someone wants to become your interpreter, you can interview them.

Zach: Sometimes an interview will go well and an interpreter will match my preferences at first, but will stop doing so over time. You just have to remember that everyone is different. No cookie is cut the same.

JV: That’s true

Zach: Everyone is different. I argued with two of my interpreters because they both already interpreted for four other med students and the interpreters had a “know-it-all” attitude. We clashed because I’m different from those other students and the interpreters should have been able to fit my needs. Maybe it was really their own personal struggle to realize that their past experiences don’t always apply because everyone is different. They needed to be able to let go of that and adjust to this new situation.

JV: What was your favorite thing you learned or your number one experience these last four years?

Zach: All of my “first-time” experiences were really cool. I remember how incredible it was to hold a human heart in my hand for the first time. The first time I held a brain was truly humbling. It was amazing to be able to hold that in my hand. Also, I was so nervous the first time I had to sew stitches. I remember being called over to sew, and my hands were shaking so hard! I felt so bad for the guy whose hand I was stitching up. He was a tough cowboy, but I could see him wincing when he saw my shaking hands. I was able to sew it, but shakily.

JV: It’s like in Toy Story 2, when that old man’s hand is shaking while he sews up the toys

Zach: Yes, exactly! Of course, it got better later on. The first time I sewed an eyeball, it was fascinating.

JV: That’s actually sewn?

Zach: Yes.

JV: Wow, I guess that makes sense because it’s not like you would use glue.

Zach: I remember there was one baby whose eye wasn’t aligned correctly. We had to resect the optic muscles, which is on the peripherals of the eyeball and place it in the correct position.

JV: You had to sew it in?

Zach: Yes, we had to sew it.

JV: Wow!

Zach: They brought me over to sew it, and I remember being intensely focused. It was tiny, hence my focus.

JV: Of course, it’s an eye!

Zach: I used forceps while sewing it in place, using an extremely small needle. It was so small, it’s like they were barely there. I did well and was really proud of myself, but of course I was nervous. It’s an eye! One wrong move and you’ll damage it.

JV: And you’re Deaf. You know how precious eyes are!

Zach: Right. It’s really the first-time experiences for everything that I cherish the most. I had a lot of cool experiences. For example, the first time I helped deliver a baby was a really enjoyable experience.

JV: Well, there you have it! Thank you to Zach for coming in and allowing me to interview him. I have been fascinated with his journey. I have seen him deal with many frustrations along the way, and yet he stayed determined to get through and I hope that you will, Zach. Thank you!

Zach: Thank you, it was nice to meet you all.