Undeterred by Deafness, Graduate Pursues Dream of Becoming a Doctor

May 17, 2010 — While job-shadowing at the University of Virginia Medical Center, Jasmine Saleh, a chemistry major who graduates May 23 from the College of Arts & Sciences, observed a cochlear-implant surgery and thought of her own experience as a 5-year-old, lying on the operating table for the same procedure.

Born in Toronto, Saleh went to hospitals about every six months as she grew up to get the implant adjusted. Those frequent trips showed her how powerful the field of medicine was and how it could make a positive impact on a person's quality of life, she said. 

"I have dreamed of becoming a physician since I understood that I was deaf," said Saleh, who will attend medical school at the University of Illinois.

Despite having the cochlear implant, Saleh said she still has had to rely on American Sign Language interpreters in her classes. In noisy, crowded environments, the mechanism isn't sophisticated enough to make the sounds and voices distinct.

"A cochlear implant is not a cure for deafness," Saleh wrote in an essay in the fall 2009 University of Virginia Magazine. "It is still difficult for me to appreciate the subtleties of spoken language, but I can hear my grandfather laughing, my mother calling my name and the phone ringing when my father calls from work."

Christopher Krentz, director of U.Va.'s American Sign Language Program, calls Saleh's pursuit of medicine "a remarkable achievement for a deaf person." An associate professor of English, Krentz, who is also deaf, has been one of her favorite teachers, she said.

"I try to focus on my capabilities rather than my challenges," Saleh wrote. "I have a strong work ethic, perseverance and patience. And I'm fascinated by deaf culture. Deaf culture is more than just the shared language of ASL; it also has its own performance arts, literature and social customs and norms distinct from the hearing world."

The implant made it possible for her to learn speech. Her mother, a pediatric nurse, gave up her job primarily to augment her daughter's intensive speech therapy. In Saleh's early years of education, she attended "oral" schools, which focused on her learning language before American Sign Language, she said.

At U.Va., Saleh has taken advantage of research opportunities unrelated to deafness, including testing certain chemical reactions that would attach antibiotics to a hip implant to prolong its life under the supervision of former U.Va. faculty member Cato Laurencin. With radiologist John F. Angle, she is co-authoring an article on kidney disease and complications from hemodialysis. She has also tutored students in math and organic chemistry.

She has contributed to deaf culture on Grounds through the student organization, Deaf Education and Awareness for All Students – D.E.A.F.S. – and was co-president this year after two years as vice president. The group brings deaf students and others together regularly for events and activities, such as "silent" lunches and dinners at local restaurants where everyone communicates in sign language.

The group, which seeks to promote interaction between deaf and hearing people, organizes the annual Deaf Awareness Week and the ASL/Deaf Culture Lecture Series. Members have taken trips to Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and taught short courses in ASL for hearing people.

Before Saleh goes to medical school, she will accompany her father on a special trip this summer.

A surgeon formerly at the U.Va. Health System, Dr. Khaled Saleh is organizing a medical mission to the Palestinian region through the Palestine Red Crescent Society and another organization, Mission Outreach. Besides delivering much-needed medical equipment, her father will perform surgeries, and she will help with patient care.

Saleh, who lived in Charlottesville for almost six years before attending the University, said she has loved the sense of community, the diverse people she has met and the opportunities here, both social and academic. Her experiences have prepared her to be "honored and excited" about fulfilling her dream of going into medicine.

— By Anne Bromley