July 26, 2019 — From the first time Jessica Williams was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she had an answer ready. Combining her loves of science and interpersonal communication, medicine was always Williams’ goal. Today, as a third-year UF medical student, she builds her medical knowledge base while pursuing her passion for increasing awareness and representation for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community.
After being deafened by pneumococcal meningitis at 19 months, Williams began using a cochlear implant, an electronic device that assists in understanding speech. She’s spent much of the last decade volunteering with those with disabilities, like children at St. Louis’ Central Institute for the Deaf. Having experienced both sides of the patient-provider relationship, she’s recognized a need for greater representation among the Deaf or hard-of-hearing community in health care.
“Representation in medicine matters,” she says. “For patients, having a Deaf or hard-of-hearing health care provider means having an automatic cultural and language connection, which puts patients at ease and ensures that communication is optimal. For Deaf or hard-of-hearing professionals or aspiring students, it’s important we are considered as able to care for patients as any other hearing person. We work just as hard as anyone else, if not harder due to our hearing differences and having to find accommodations that work for us, and in the end, can do what any hearing person can do.”
Williams works toward her goals of becoming both a physician and advocate for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community with help from the Dean’s Preeminence Scholarship she received from Mark Michels, M.D. ’85, president of the UF College of Medical Alumni Board of Directors.
“When the going gets tough and I am overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material or upcoming block exams, it’s always an encouraging reminder to know that the Gator doctors before me believe in my potential,” Williams says.
From her colleagues wearing clear masks in the operating room so she can read the lips of those she’s working with to lecture video captioning to a modified stethoscope, Williams has found the UF College of Medicine to be a welcome and accommodating environment.
“Conversation isn’t something people think about if they haven’t been around someone with hearing loss, but after a simple introduction and some self-advocacy on my part, it soon becomes second nature,” she says. “Not everyone with hearing loss or another disability is comfortable with self-advocacy, so it’s important for everyone to be naturally mindful of others’ needs and be a welcoming presence that gives those with hidden disabilities the comfort to disclose.”
Williams says she’s keeping her options open in terms of specialties to pursue after graduating, but her clinical rotation in pediatric neurology sparked deep interest.
“After just one week in pediatric neurology at UF Health, I felt at home,” she says. “It had everything about medicine that I loved and needed: the adorable pediatrics population, the triadic interview style where the parents play a big role in the patient’s storytelling and the fascinating, problem-solving nature of neurology.”
No matter what specialty Williams matches in, she’s sure of the impact she wants to have through her patient care and advocacy. As a member of the Association for Medical Professionals with Hearing Loss and through partnering with her mentor Michael McKee, M.D. ’01, Williams is working on various projects to increase awareness and representation of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing population.
“It’s important to be aware of a patient or a medical professional’s hearing loss, but much more important to not think of it as a hindrance to care. I have heard the phrase, ‘The only thing we cannot do is hear,’ but even that is not entirely true with the amazing advances of hearing technology. But even if it is true for a particular physician or patient, then so what?” she says. “We’ve come a long way in changing the hearing world’s perceptions of us, but there is still a long way to go.”