Dr Justine Durno – A Deaf Doctors Journey

Published: Mar 27th, 2020



What was your experience of Further and Higher Education as a Deaf person? 

I have two degrees (Anatomy then Medicine), and I did struggle more in the first one because I had just left a deaf school, where I was living in this comfortable bubble in which all my educational and social needs were met, and I was surrounded by deaf friends every day. At university, I ended up being the only deaf person in hundreds of people in my year, and it was the first time I was independent in the ‘hearing world’. It was a strange and unsettling time! 

When it came to my second degree, Medicine, I was older and more self-assured. I had been through a whole cycle of Higher Education so I knew what to expect, and I knew what support I needed. On top of that, I had moved to London so I was around a lot more deaf people, and I was finally studying Medicine five years after leaving school. So I was more settled and enjoyed that one a lot more! 

In both universities I had a good disability advisor, which I feel was key to me feeling supported – I always felt there was someone there who was willing to help me with anything I needed. 

What would you recommend to someone with Deaf/deaf to make a success of university? 

Every deaf person is different. Really have a think about what support YOU need and prefer so that you can access your education easily. Don’t be embarrassed about speaking up about your deafness and what you need – people won’t know otherwise. 

One cool thing that my disability advisor came up with is interviewing and hiring coursemates to write lecture notes for me, and they would be paid by DSA (Disabled Student Allowance). It was a win-win situation for both me and the notetakers as they were writing notes for themselves anyway, and it made sure they had high quality notes for both me and them, and they got paid for it. As a bonus, I ended up becoming friends with one of my notetakers. 

Another advice is – always keep in touch with deaf friends, and keep meeting up with them. You will find yourself recharged and content after being with them, and it was key for me to remain self-assured, and feel able to keep persevering in university life. Also consider getting involved in the university’s sign language society, or setting up one if there’s none. It’s a great way to make friends! That’s one thing I would have done if I had my university days over again. 

What sparked your interest in medicine and becoming a doctor? 

I wish I had some inspiring story to share with you about a life changing epiphany but I don’t! I was choosing my A-Levels in school, and wanted to pick subjects that would help me get into my chosen career, so I knew I had to decide then what it was to be. I really loved human biology at the time, and I knew it had to be something to do with the human body, and I wanted to do what I thought was the most challenging thing in that field, and medicine was the answer I came to! 

Do you feel there is enough information and training out there to encourage deaf people get involve in medicine or become a doctor? 

I think the main issue is that there’s not enough deaf role models in medicine and therefore medicine isn’t something that deaf young people, as well as parents and teachers of deaf children, would even consider. There are also so many other issues which explain the reasons why there are not many deaf people getting into the medical field, such as language deprivation in babies and young children (from not communicating in sign language with them, meaning language acquisition is impeded), and inadequate education not tailored to a deaf child’s needs. It means that deaf children’s educational attainment is still behind their hearing peers, and so it makes it very difficult for them to catch up in time for further education. Of course, we should still be raising awareness of medicine as a career for deaf people, but it’s not as simple as doing just that. We need to attack the problem from the root too. 

What is your role at Guys and St Thomas Hospital and why do you enjoy it? 

I am a trainee histopathologist. In histopathology we receive human tissue that have been taken out during surgery or endoscopy, for example, and we sample them and look at them under the microscope to diagnose disease. We also perform post mortems to ascertain the cause of death, and sometimes attend court to relay our findings from them. It also involves attending multidisciplinary meetings with different specialties to discuss histopathology results to help them decide on how to manage their patients. I really enjoy histopathology because it is such a visual specialty – it is a very hands on, practical field, and diagnosing disease is all about recognising patterns. I hope to sub-specialise in Forensic Pathology. I also do the odd weekend shift in A&E in another hospital to keep up with the clinical side of medicine, which I still love! 

I understand you were invited to write a chapter in a book called Women and Girls in Science? Who are your female role models and inspiration? 

I wrote a chapter in the book “#February11: Women and Girls in Science, for Socio-Economic and Sustainable Developmentwhich was published by The Royal Academy of Science International Trust (available to buy from https://february11.org/). The chapter is called Deaf Women in Science, and I talk about my journey to and in medicine, the reactions I’ve had from people, and I tie it in with the reasons why deaf people are not succeeding in medicine and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). Finally, the last section gives nine recommendations of how we can welcome more deaf doctors and scientists. 

This is the first book in the series to be published from now until 2030, and the aim is to document the stories of women in STEM, and the journey towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), one of which is to “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls 

I am inspired by my deaf colleagues working in the medical field; the doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, and so on – they show me that it is possible to work in this environment and that I am far from alone. I use Facebook groups to talk with them – UK Deaf Healthcare Professionals. If there are any other deaf healthcare professionals out there, come join us! 

What was it like speaking at UN? 

Nerve wracking but also exhilarating! The audience didn’t know I was going to sign so all eyes were on me as it was something different and unexpected. It was good – I enjoyed it, and I would recommend to any female deaf STEM-ers or doctors to give it a go. You don’t have to be invited – you can apply to speak from the floor. (View Dr. Durno’s UN address here)

Anything else you would like to share? 

I would like to say a couple things to any deaf person considering medicine: 

  1. Medicine is hugely competitive – I got into medicine after applying for the third time, so don’t feel discouraged if you don’t get an offer on the first or even second attempt. If you’re not successful, capitalise on this opportunity to get more work experience, to do other courses, and generally add more strings to your bow. I know myself that taking one year out to do exactly that gave me a huge amount of personal development, and meant that I was successful the next time I applied to medical school. They look for not just academic achievement but relevant experience. 
  1. I would love to see more deaf signing doctors, as I seem to be the only one who uses sign language at work. So if anyone thinks that they can’t get into medicine because they use sign language as their main language, I implore them to put that worry aside and just give it a go! The world is changing nowadays, people are slowly starting to become more open-minded, and we need trailblazers to make it easier for more deaf doctors to follow in their footsteps. Any problems getting into medical school because of their deafness, I’m happy to help fight their corner. 

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