Nursing student Megan Sturges picked up her stethoscope and listened to the heartbeats of fellow student Angie Cline. Later she watched the instructor insert a tube into a “dummy” patient's nose.
In most ways, Sturges, 22, blended in with the other students in her nursing skills class at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. But her eyes were fixed most of the time on a woman behind the instructor, whose hands moved quickly through the air. And while other students jotted in their notebooks, Sturges looked only at her book when the woman signaled her to do so.
Sturges is the first deaf student enrolled in the nursing program at IPFW. Her stethoscope magnifies heart, bowel and lung sounds 65 times. An interpreter moves with her from class to class, using American Sign Language as rapidly as professors pronounce such phrases as percutaneous endoscopic and gastrostomy.
With the help of the nonprofit League for the Blind & Disabled, as well as Vocational Rehabilitation and IPFW's Services for Students with Disabilities, Sturges is training to be a nurse. In addition to an interpreter, she has a note-taker - another student who writes class notes using carbon paper so Sturges has a copy.
“I've always been interested in the medical field, in health and nutrition,” said Sturges, who has a sister who's a doctor and another sister and sister-in-law who are nurses.
She considered several other fields initially, uncertain if a nursing career was feasible for a deaf person. But Sturges persuaded IPFW to admit her to the program.
“We had to make sure she could hear with an enhanced stethoscope, that she could adequately assess patients' lungs, heart, blood pressure,” said Carol Sternberger, nursing department chair. While she uses an interpreter for classes and during on-site clinical training now, when on the job an interpreter will not be available.
“I'm not sure how I'll do everything, but I have to be creative, to think out of the box,” Sturges says. “I can speak, but I know I have to speak more clearly, pronounce things more like the way hearing people do.”
Doctors speculate her mother may have unknowingly had a virus when she was pregnant with Megan that damaged the nerves used in hearing. She is totally deaf in the left ear and profoundly deaf in the right ear.
“I hear sounds, but I don't know where they're coming from,” she said.
Megan grew up in a lake home in Steuben County. She attended the HEAR Preschool in Fort Wayne, was in a special-education class for a time in Angola, then was mainstreamed. But when she started middle school, the difficulty of changing teachers for each class, adjusting to reading lips of so many people, was frustrating and discouraging. In seventh grade, she transferred to the Indiana School for the Deaf in Indianapolis.
“There I was able to be better educated. I was with my peers. I felt at ease with them,” she said. She excelled in math, a subject that baffled her before.
Today's technology - the Internet, text-messaging and personal digital assistants, or PDAs, for example - are a boon to the deaf, Megan said.
The League for the Blind & Disabled offers a lending library of adaptive equipment and technological devices to help people with varying kinds of disabilities live as independently as possible.
Sturges knows hurdles are ahead. One health-care site where she was to do hands-on clinical coursework this semester told IPFW that having a deaf student working with patients was too great a liability.
Parkview Hospital, on the other hand, has encouraged her to do her clinicals there, she said. This semester, she's getting hands-on experience in the hospital's extended-care unit. The only problem has been some patients want to ask a lot of questions about her deafness and about sign language, Sturges said, noting, “I answer some of their questions, then I say, ‘I'm here to talk about you.'
An online site for deaf people in medical professions has given her encouragement that others are working as nurses, doctors, technicians and in related jobs.
“Being deaf does not mean I will not be a good nurse,” she said. “I know I will be a good nurse.”
More InformationAgency: League for the Blind & Disabled Inc., 5821 S. Anthony Blvd.
Phone: 441-0551; Voice/TT 1-800-889-3443
Mission: To empower people with disabilities to achieve their potential. The League is a federally designated Center for Independent Living.
When founded: Began operations February 1951
Annual budget: $1.3 million
United Way funding: $60,500
President/CEO: David Nelson
Key services: Information and referral; independent-living skills training; peer support; mobility training; adaptive equipment; youth services; Braille services; DeafLink; and volunteer services
Serves: 11 northeast Indiana counties
Tidbit: In 1949, Helen Keller came to Fort Wayne to help raise funds to start the League.
Consumers assisted in 2006: 1,500
Source: 2006 annual report of the League