Technology assures deaf student learns surgery at UC Davis School of Medicine

Click video to view or listen to interview with medical student Amanda Mooneyham.

Amanda Mooneyham admits that she "dreaded" the prospect of a surgery rotation in her third year at UC Davis School of Medicine.

Mooneyham has a 90 decibel hearing loss in both ears, which is considered profound. She can read lips and, with the help of hearing aids, can hear speech as long as the words are spoken clearly and in her direction. In a hospital operating room, where physicians are more apt to mumble than use complete sentences and where everyone wears masks and directs their attention toward the patient, Mooneyham faced a frustrating — if not entirely ineffective — surgical learning experience.

A level playing field

Thanks to the Department of Surgery's determination to maintain a level playing field and to Mooneyham's innovative spirit, the surgery rotation has gone beautifully.

"We have a variety of different medical students with different interests, backgrounds and disabilities, but the point is to provide them all with a roughly similar experience," said David Wisner, professor and vice chair of surgery at UC Davis. "If we said, 'well, she can't hear so she can't go to the operating room,' the experience she would have would be inferior to that of the rest, and that would not be right."

Mooneyham and the medical team prepare for surgery. © UC Regents
Mooneyham and the medical team prepare for surgery.

Utilizing technology to 'listen'

Using tablet technology to link the sounds in the operating room to an off-site medical transcriptionist, Mooneyham is able to "listen" — in real time — to every word uttered by the surgeon performing the operation. With a microphone clipped to surgical scrubs, the surgeon proceeds normally — discussing the procedure, quizzing and interacting with the student. A transcriptionist, working like a court reporter, receives the audio and simultaneously types the surgeon's words, which Mooneyham can watch on an overhead monitor while also observing — and even assisting when asked — the surgeon.

"I am actively able to participate in the surgery, which of course makes it more interesting," says Mooneyham. "Deaf people are visual learners by nature. It's nice to take part in something that kind of uses our strengths."

The technological solution has pleased everyone, from the surgeons teaching the next generation of physicians to Amanda, who says she now is taking a serious look at the possibility of pursuing surgery after graduating from medical school next year.