Sadie Bowling was 5 years old when her mother discovered she was partially deaf.
“My mom was actually an audiologist. One day she was washing her hands and I told her, ‘I can't hear you when the water's running.’ She said it was like a light bulb. She thought, ‘oh my gosh, it’s not that she’s not listening. She can’t hear.’”
The family soon learned that Sadie had severe hearing loss in her left ear and slight hearing loss in her right ear. The culprit was likely the several rounds of RSV she had as a baby.
“It really didn't bother me growing up because I went to very small international schools, but when I got to college, it started to become more apparent in places like huge lecture halls,” Bowling explained.
Her disability did nothing to discourage her from veterinary school, however. Animals have been a lifelong passion, especially exotic and wild animals. Raised in places like Sumatra Indonesia, where school kids celebrate Earth Day by bathing elephants, Bowling was inspired to pursue a career in wild animal medicine. She knew she had the passion, work ethic, and the potential to succeed in an extremely competitive field. She just needed a few tools and strategies to help her cope with being deaf in one ear.
Enter the 3M™ Littmann® CORE Digital Stethoscope. Like many medical students, Bowling was given her first stethoscope as a gift in college. But unlike many other students, she truly relies on it to be able to hear heart and lung sounds.
“I started using the Littmann® CORE as a veterinary technician prior to vet school. I would monitor surgeries and things like that, and it was literally the only way I could hear the heart. Now that I’m in vet school, I can really identify when something’s wrong, when a beat isn’t right. It’s extremely important to be able to pick up on those tiny little details that can end an animal’s life.”
It wasn’t always as easy as simply toggling up the amplification on her digital stethoscope, however. Soon after arriving at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine on Saint Christopher, an island in the West Indies, Bowling found herself struggling.
“I think my big shock moment was my first anesthesia. There were about 20 people in the room and maybe 4 or 5 sheep sleeping, plus all the machines. The anesthesia technician that was helping my group was trying to talk to me. I knew his mouth was moving, but I couldn’t hear anything. I realized then my hearing loss was a huge deal.”
Bowling wasn’t alone. Before long, another deaf student posted on a class page, asking to connect with other students with hearing loss. Bowling helped create a Facebook group for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Veterinary Students (DHHVS) with her friend, Grace Pechman Dailey. The group is now an official student organization, the first of its kind at Ross. DHHVS functions as a community space and advice hub for students looking for guidance and strategies. It also spearheads efforts to get deaf and hard of hearing students special resources.
“For instance, one of my professors, Dr. Sarah Cavanaugh, she's been fabulous. She set up a special lab for deaf students. Volunteers came in with pets that had various heart murmurs or defects and we would go one by one and listen to them and get a feel for what weird sounds like. If you can barely hear normal, it's really hard to know when something's wrong unless you get a ton of exposure to it,” Bowling said. “Another thing Dr. Cavanaugh did was show us how to feel the pulse with our hands. Then you can make sure the pulse matches what you’re hearing.”
Now a 7th-semester veterinary student, Bowling is never without her Littmann® CORE. She explained that not only does it allow her to diagnose with confidence, but she also uses the Eko App frequently to record sounds and upload those clips to patient records.
“Just yesterday I was helping out with a spay event. I was working recovery as the dogs came out of surgery. You’ve really got to listen hard and make sure nothing is out of the ordinary. Or with the retired racehorse I was taking care of this semester. You have to get right up in a horse’s armpit to hear their heart. Being able to tell I’m in the right spot, being able to recognize the different heart sounds of a horse versus a cat or a dog with the Littmann® CORE has been a huge change. It’s given me a lot of assurance and makes me feel like I’m just as capable as anyone else.”
The main challenge now is raising awareness and changing the attitudes of those around her. She said her hearing loss has been interpreted as laziness or ineptitude or even too big of a problem to pursue any kind of career in medicine. Remember that first sheep anesthesia? Bowling realized then that she relies on lip reading much more than she thought. In preparation for a recent surgery she let her professor know she would need others to wear clear masks during the procedure so she could better understand what people were saying.
“I just wanted to run it by him. He said ‘well, you're talking to me right now. Obviously, you can hear.’ I didn’t even know where to begin to respond to that.”
This is a large part of why Ross’s DHHVS club admits all students, regardless of whether they have a disability. The more students and faculty are exposed to the challenges deaf students face, the more understanding, accommodating, and supportive they can become. Advocates aren’t forged in a vacuum. But as Bowling can attest, the road to gaining allies and advocates can be painful.
“There’s so much work to be done on this front. People can be so rude and outright offensive sometimes. I feel like in some cases people are scared to ask questions so they become defensive or assume you’re lying or ignoring them on purpose. But it’s fine to ask questions! All you need to do is ask ‘can you tell me more about your hearing loss?’”
She hopes more medical schools create their own organizations for deaf and hard of hearing students. Someone recently donated a new Littmann® CORE to Ross’s club, which is getting a lot of use. Bowling also recommends all clinicians and medical students take advantage of a digital stethoscope.
“Honestly, I tell everybody they should have a Littmann® CORE or some kind of amplified stethoscope. It’s awesome! And why wouldn't you want to have fun, even if you can hear with a regular stethoscope?”
Best of luck to Bowling as she heads into her clinical year of veterinarian school at Louisiana State in the fall.