The Deaf Doc Is In

Karen Putz, Illinois Hands & Voices

“I’m really concerned about your daughter’s speech impediment,” said the new speech therapist to Carolyn Stern’s parents, Barbara and Bob Stern. The family had just moved to Maryland and settled into a new school.

Speech impediment? Carolyn’s parents wondered.  What is it?

“She seems to not be able to say the endings of words,” said the therapist.  “For example, she drops her ‘r’s and her vowel sounds are a bit off.  She says ‘mothuh,’ ‘fathuh,’ and ‘ahrange’ for mother, father and orange.”

“That’s not a speech impediment,” Carolyn’s parents laughed, “that’s her New York accent!”

That child is now Dr. Carolyn Stern, a board certified physician who is the Medical Director at the Rochester School for the Deaf.  Dr. Stern obtained her medical degree at Northwestern University in Chicago and completed her residency at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois.

Born with a severe-to-profound loss in her left ear and a profound loss in her right, Carolyn was fitted with hearing aids at 14 months of age and received speech therapy five days a week. Carolyn’s parents received conflicting advice from various professionals; a few of them offered low expectations and the stipulation that Carolyn was “slow.” 

“I wish I could see those professionals now,” Carolyn says with a grin.

Carolyn was an active child who was easily bored in school. This translated into episodes of walking on desks and once tossing a chair at a teacher out of frustration. She recalled a third grade teacher who was not helpful at all, especially when Carolyn had difficulty pronouncing her own name in front of the class. Pondering a solution, Carolyn announced to the class that she was changing her name to “Carrie.” The nickname stayed with her throughout high school.

Carolyn’s family moved to Potomac to avoid the open classroom design that was going to be implemented during sixth grade. 

“It would have been too hard for me to hear,” Carolyn explains.

“Junior high and high school were also tough for me,” Carolyn continues.  “Kids teased me mercilessly. I did not really have the social skills and I suspect I had some issues with impulsivity. I would interrupt the teacher, not raise my hand…that kind of thing.”

Carolyn did not have much in terms of support services in the mainstream setting. She had speech therapy and auditory training, and sat in front of the class as part of her accommodations.

“I felt very comfortable asking the teachers questions during or after classes or during study hall,” Carolyn says.

Carolyn was active in various after school programs, including Math Club, Chess Club and Science Club. 

“Mom had me do dancing (jazz, ballet, tap), taking music lessons (violin-would you believe it?) and piano and gymnastics etc.,” Carolyn grins. “She kept me on the run!”

It was not until Carolyn joined a teen club with other deaf and hard of hearing students that she discovered that some of them attended her middle school. Despite a communication gap, (Carolyn’s knowledge of sign language was limited to fingerspelling the alphabet) they bonded over captioned films, which were a rarity in those days.   Carolyn went on to join Deaf Dimensions in high school, a dance troupe that incorporated the use of signs with their dance routines.

During high school, Carolyn’s parents encouraged Carolyn to explore the world through various summer programs. One year she attended the Gifted and Talented Program in Behavioral Science at the Maryland School for the Deaf. Another summer she spent six weeks studying Polymer Science at Penn State University.  The summer that stands out most in her mind was the six weeks she toured Poland, Austria, Romania and Israel with a Hebrew high school group.

“Communication was difficult in groups,” recalls Carolyn, “but I learned a lot. I advocated for myself and sat up in front near the tour guide. It was extremely moving and very sad going through the concentration camps.”

Carolyn spent her junior year abroad in England. “I had to be interviewed by the Dean before I could go,” said Carolyn. “He asked me, ‘Carolyn, are you aware that the English they speak is not the same English that we speak here?’”

She responded with a chuckle, “Dean Davis, I have had teachers from India with accents, an English teacher who stutters, and teachers who can’t teach.  What makes you think it will be any different over there!”

The dean laughed and agreed to let her go.

Carolyn’s choice of career was an easy one. “I took anatomy and physiology in high school and I loved it. I also worked in a research lab for a while—I did immunology and microbiology research as well as cancer research.

“I also liked going to see the doctor, and I saw many!” Carolyn fondly recalls. “I always asked them why they were doing what they did and how things worked.”

While at Northwestern, Carolyn encountered some challenges in obtaining interpreters for her classes.

“I started using interpreting services at Northwestern University during my second year.” Carolyn explains. “After about six to nine months of services, the school got a bill for about $900.00 of interpreter services. They told the Dean of Student Affairs that this was costing the school too much and they would have to stop providing me with services. I was not using them that much...only for groups and some discussions...”

Carolyn didn’t know what to do at first.  She consulted several resources and decided to file a lawsuit through the Office of Civil Rights as well as through a local firm, using Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (this was prior to the Americans with Disabilities Act, but 504 is still extremely powerful).

The school was placed on a temporary restraining order and continued to provide interpreters.  “It finally settled satisfactorily,” Carolyn recalled, “with the end result being that Northwestern University had to set up an Office of Students with Disabilities that covered services for students with disabilities on both the undergrad and grad campuses!  The Dean of Student Affairs, Dr. Jack Snarr--a great guy--sent me the official brochure when the office first opened.”

As Carolyn went through the medical school rotations, one professor of pediatrics sat down with her and said he wanted to discuss something. He said to her, “You need to think carefully about your career and the choices and options in your future.”

“He said it in a way that made me feel he doubted my abilities...or that I did not consider those things every day,” said Carolyn.  “I said to him, ‘Thank you very much. I have lived with my hearing loss all my life, and this is something I think about every day!’”

During August 1990, two months into her residency at Lutheran General Hospital while presenting in medical rounds, Carolyn discovered that she could no longer hear.  Her hearing improved somewhat during the week after a dose of medicine. The following week, during an exam, Carolyn was hit with a wave of vertigo and she had to leave the room. She was admitted to the hospital as a patient.

 “I was now completely deaf, nauseous, the room would not stop moving, and in the hospital for the first time in my life—other than the ER and my mom delivering me!” recalled Carolyn. “It was a horrible experience! I was engaged to be married that October.” Doctors suspected that Ménières disease or a viral infection was to blame.  After experiencing a fluctuating hearing loss for a year, Carolyn decided to obtain a cochlear implant. “I was not in the “Deaf World” at that time, as I grew up in an auditory-verbal environment.  Now, I support ‘whatever works best for the child and his/her family.’ The important factor is making sure communication happens!”

“When the loss was ‘final,’” Carolyn said, “I somehow came to the conclusion that someone had a goal for me...and I better figure out why this was happening to me!”  Carolyn decided that she would then pursue a career of serving the deaf and hard of hearing community. One of her most memorable experiences was delivering a baby for a mom who previously had two cesareans. “The mom went into labor on her own and the baby was nearly 10 pounds!” Carolyn laughs.

Carolyn finished her residency at Lutheran General and then moved to Rochester, New York, and joined a practice with several other doctors. Today, Carolyn is the Medical Director at the Rochester School for the Deaf and is also a Student Health Physician at Gallaudet University. She and her husband Al are the parents of three children.

Bob Stern, Carolyn’s father, has a bit of advice he’d like to share with parents today:

“If I were to make any recommendation, it would be for parents of deaf or hard of hearing children to push a child to do as much as they are capable of doing, to provide the means for them to communicate with others, and to keep working to find the right solution for your particular child. Treat them and talk to them as you would any other child, give them responsibilities, and provide them the same opportunities. Parents should discard recommendations that don’t make sense or would limit the child’s growth potential in any way.”  ~

Visit Dr. Stern on the web at:

Copyright 2014 Hands & Voices   ::   Privacy Policy   ::   Credits