When asked to list three things that uniquely define her, Grace Lassiter, a recent graduate of the Texas A&M College of Medicine, doesn’t hesitate in her response: “I love to paint, I want to be a surgeon and I am deaf.”
Lassiter failed her first hearing test when she was five years old. But she was so good at adapting to her challenges that she continued life without much disruption. It wasn’t until she was playing soccer at the age of nine that her difficulty hearing became problematic.
“I didn’t realize how much I was just adapting to my situations by doing things differently,” Lassiter said. “I couldn’t hear the coach call my name to switch out, to sub someone in. So we just developed a little tap system, I just had to be more situationally aware. It didn’t really bother me. It’s just a way of life.”
Eventually, she was diagnosed with hearing loss from a degenerative nerve disease. With her first set of hearing aids, she was surprised by how much she hadn’t been able to experience.
“We were walking out [of the doctor’s office] and into the parking garage and I was like ‘Whoa, I can hear footsteps!’” Lassiter said. “It was a very special moment for me.”
As a child, Lassiter’s disability didn’t prevent her from thriving in homeschooling courses. She found a great passion for art, so when the time came for college, she came to Texas A&M University to study visualization sciences. But something began to change, and she felt an unshakable calling to go to medical school.
“I was just lying in bed one night and began to think about my future and felt a calling to medical school,” Lassiter said. “I couldn’t shake the feeling, and so I set my mind to go to medical school.”
The next day, Lassiter made a “deal” with her mom, who had been her homeschooling teacher: she’d take a biology class at the local community college in addition to her courses at A&M to test out how she would do with the subject matter. If she made an A, she could start a new path towards medical school. Needless to say, she got the A. But this new path wasn’t easy, and it contained many hurdles beyond the usual challenges of medical school.
Lassiter’s determination and belief in her calling to go to medical school helped her overcome those feelings of doubt when they’d creep in to her mind.
“I wasn’t totally sure if I could do it because of being hard of hearing,” Lassiter said. “Before starting medical school, my biggest fear was not being able to keep up with the coursework or not being able to hear the physicians speak.”
She was accepted to Texas A&M College of Medicine and said her fears were quickly eased by her own ability to adapt and the school’s support of her hearing loss.
“The Texas A&M medical school and I just clicked, and I felt very much at home here. They set up meetings for me before I began coursework to make sure my needs were taken care of,” Lassiter said. “I felt like they had my back, and at any point, they were always just an e-mail away.”
For Lassiter, medical school was more than an experience: It was a process.
“It’s a process of learning about yourself, what you can do, what you can’t do, what pressures you can face without breaking,” she said. “It’s also a process of learning everything there is to know about medicine so that you can continue learning throughout your career and to continue applying the new knowledge for the betterment of your patient.”
Lassiter graduated medical school with the class of 2017 and is on her way to a career in surgery. Originally, she thought she would practice family medicine, but her surgery clerkship changed all that.
“The surgery clerkship was 12 weeks, with 12 to 13 hour days, and we were in the last bit. Everybody else was so ready to be done, but I just wanted to continue and stay,” Lassiter said. “The doctor had to remind me it was time to go. I just remember thinking to myself, ‘but I don’t want to go.’ I just wanted to keep on, I wanted to stay. I wanted to learn. It’s the ability to actually affect the patients with our own hands. You can see the problem, what’s causing them so much pain, and you can fix it, making a tangible difference.”
Lassiter’s education and passion for art played a big role in how she views medicine and how she interprets information.
“I would say that art made my time with surgery a lot better,” Lassiter said. “My undergraduate major dealt a lot with 3D graphics. To transfer that over to laparoscopic surgery where left is right and right is left, and you have to move the instruments accordingly, it’s really difficult for some people. For me, I just started and it was natural.”
Defying possibilities and preconceived ideas about what a person can or can’t do has helped inspire Lassiter during her challenging times.
“I see life and I see people overcoming odds and being very good at what they do despite whatever challenges they might have faced. That inspires me,” Lassiter said.
Her ultimate goal is to serve patients and make their lives a better place, but her example has gone beyond the exam room and beyond the operating table. She’s defied those preconceived ideas about what a deaf person can accomplish.
“If I could inspire others to follow where their drive leads and find what they are most energized by,” she said, “that would be my greatest accomplishment and my most desired mark on health care and in the world.”
This story by Katherine Hancock originally appeared in Vital Record.