Being a Deaf Nurse When Everyone’s Wearing Masks: My Cochlear Implant Experience

by | Apr 7, 2020 | Nursing, Video

I’m a new nurse in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), and use a cochlear implant to hear. I’m totally deaf without it. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many hospitals are starting to enforce wearing masks 24/7. This is proving to be very difficult for deaf and hard of hearing people, so I’ve made a video to document my experience as a deaf ICU nurse.

Hey, I’m Alley, I graduated nursing school in December 2019 and I’m working as a nurse in the ICU. I wanted to talk a little bit about being a deaf nurse and what it’s like being a new deaf nurse in a sea of masked faces.

So I became deaf when I was three from bacterial meningitis. So it happened really suddenly and I got a cochlear implant in my right ear soon after. So I’m entirely deaf without my cochlear implant and I can hear out of my right ear when my cochlear implant is on. Being a new graduate nurse in the ICU is difficult no matter what, but because we’re in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, my hospital has a new policy that everybody needs to wear a surgical mask at all times when they’re in the hospital, whether they have contact with a confirmed COVID-19 patient or not. So that means not only am I a new nurse that’s lagging behind everybody else a little bit, I’m also discovering that I relied a lot more on lip reading than I ever knew.

So what does that look like for me? Because I only have one cochlear implant, I can’t really tell where sound is coming from, so without seeing lips move in my peripheral vision, I’m finding it difficult to figure out who’s even speaking in a group of people when they start talking. As an ICU nurse, that usually means somebody’s talking during rounds where all the providers, that would be the critical care doctor and the specialty doctors like neurosurgeons and it’s a lot of people. Nurse practitioners, they’re all standing around me and when one of them starts talking, I now have to deduce who it is, but I’m late. So they’ll start talking and I’ll be like trying to figure out who it is. When someone’s wearing a mask, the eyes don’t move as much as the rest of the face, so obviously if I had known these providers for years, I would know what doctor Smith’s voice sounds like exactly and I would just immediately know to turn to him, but because I’m new, I’m really getting that delay and I’m noticing that I’m relying on lip reading and seeing lips move to participate in conversations.

Also in the line of this, I’m a new nurse, I’m a new ICU nurse, and I’m learning new terminology so it’s kind of harder to translate what’s being said in my head when I’m not lip reading and getting a better view of what’s being said. So if a provider’s telling me, okay, well I’m gonna need the ABG results and see if we need to ween off the propofol before we try to extravate. I know those words, but hearing them is so new to me that it takes me a minute to catch up without the lip reading to really both hear it and translate it in my head. I get so in my head too because what the doctors and nurses and other providers are saying are so important and so time-sensitive with the patient in a critical care unit that I get worried that I’m gonna miss something and I get overly apologetic. Like I’m so sorry, like normally I hear better than this, I promise, and I need to learn to kind of let myself breathe through it and not get too anxious about it.

In the past, I’ve had a hard time stopping someone and saying, I didn’t hear that, sorry, can you repeat it? Because actually like a lot of deaf people and hard of hearing people will kind of do the smile and nod and pretend to have heard things and I can’t do that in the ICU. You can’t pretend to have heard something in the ICU. So it is really good practice for me to step back and say, I’m sorry, could you repeat that? I didn’t hear you, because I wasn’t very good at doing that before. Deaf and hard of hearing people can be the biggest con artists and we’ve all laughed about it just pretending that we heard what she said with a laugh and a smile. Until it looks like you actually asked a question, we have to fess up and say that we didn’t hear it. Tell people you didn’t hear them, ask them to repeat the question. That’s a lesson I’ve learned with all these masks running around and everybody having a mask on at all times.

Of course, as a nurse in the ICU you are in charge of your patient because you’re with them all day and nurses have a lot of autonomy in the ICU to make the big decisions in emergency situations so now I’m kind of nervous that an emergency’s going to happen and I’m not gonna be able to participate in the responses well because I’m not hearing as well as I normally am, and this was not a concern I had going into the nursing field because you don’t really wear masks a ton in the ICU usually unless the patient is on contact isolation precautions of some sort. So maybe if the patient had the flu or maybe if they’re a cancer patient and we don’t want to get them sick, then we’re wearing masks in the room, but now everybody’s wearing masks in the rooms, in the hallways, in the elevators, everywhere. I have not seen anybody’s mouth in a week and a half. I’m also seeing that it’s difficult for my patients that are hard of hearing and patient families.

If you come into the room and you talk to them like this and you use medical terminology that they may not understand then a lot of patients who are hard of hearing are not really getting what’s being said. Even though it’s certainly more difficult being an ICU nurse with a cochlear implant, I think it has been cool to see that everybody’s adjusting to the change as well. All the staff is having a little bit harder time hearing everybody with masks over our faces. I do feel like that deaf and hard of hearing people, we can be a little hard on ourselves when we don’t hear things and we feel like that it’s our fault for not having the cochlear implant functioning right or if you don’t have a cochlear implant or if we’re not lip reading well enough or picking up the sounds well enough, but it is kind of good sometimes to step back and remind ourselves that everybody has difficulty hearing sometimes.

Nobody has perfect hearing and the population of people who are hard of hearing gets bigger every year. So when all of us wear masks in the hospital, it’s good to remind myself that I am not the only one that has difficulty with people wearing masks all the time and we can work through it as a team together and even though I might be the only person in the room with a cochlear implant, I’m not the only one that has to work through this. So as I am a nurse in this pandemic and as I realize that we’re all going to be wearing masks for a while, I am still very happy to be a nurse. I’m excited that I’m in this profession with a cochlear implant and I’m excited to move forward. If you are someone that wants to be a nurse that’s deaf or hard of hearing or uses a cochlear implant or hearing aid I will be making more videos about my experience as a deaf nurse. I’m a brand new nurse that just started a couple months ago so more of these situations will arise and evolve and I’m excited to share more about what being a deaf nurse is like on the floor. If you enjoyed this little video you can like and subscribe. There will be more coming. I’m excited to be a deaf nurse and get more experience on how to talk about it and expand on it better. Thanks, y’all.