The girl who could not talk: What do you do?

Doctor In Consultation With Female Patient who cannot speak

I lay there and stared both out of boredom and exasperation. Boredom because this had become the narrative of my life long before I was conceived or so I began to make myself believe years after I had been birthed. The soundless motion of their mouths, a normal I was born into.

My world was silent. Dead silent. I never knew no sound. Soon after I was born, I stared at the soundless motions of their lips in awe then soon came the anger, the frustrating wails that no one seemed to comprehend. I cannot count the numerous strange faces that came to see me, touch me weirdly and stare at me for lengthy periods of time then finally, as if they had given up, left with their faces fallen and their heads shaking in denial.

I would come to learn later that there had been whispers throughout the village that I had been bewitched or cursed or that my mother had not wanted me and that’s why this evil had befallen my family. For years, I would not be allowed to go out and play with the rest of the kids. I could watch them longingly through the small window in my mother’s hut and could never understand the kind of sounds that came out of their mouth as they played.

I grew forlorn over the years and my occasional trips to the hospital became dreadful since no one would understand me and my father could not make time every time to accompany me and translate my issues to the doctor.

It was very frustrating for me. You cannot begin to imagine my excitement when I was first taught braille! Finally! A way to communicate! I was so excited that I couldn’t wait to explain myself to the doctor the next time I had to go to the hospital! Not to mean that I hoped to be sick but I could not wait to be understood!

She then walked in. She looked friendly even though her surgical mask covered half her face, she had warm eyes and reassured me. She looked like hope in her white dustcoat. I wanted to smile but could not dare move my mouth since my jaw hurt so badly that I could barely eat anything. My face effectively concealed my excitement and as usual, like the rest before her, she approached me and had her mouth moving as she rested her palm on my shoulder as if to ask my name.

I tried to smile but winced instead. My hands shot up in the air and I started signaling believing that she would understand me. After a few seconds, the look of confusion on her face that she tried very much to hide, was apparent. She was looking at my father for help in translation.

That’s when it dawned on me- not everyone understood sign language! My doctor could not understand me! A tear ran down my right cheek as I watched my father be my voice yet again. The doctor quickly prompted my father to ask me whether I was in pain – it must have been the tear she saw.

* * * *

When I first saw her, I attempted to ask her her name and what her complaint was to no avail. After about two minutes of trying to arouse her thinking that she was perhaps anxious being in the hospital ward et al, a gentle looking woman who happened to be the relative to one of the patients walked up to me and politely informed me that she could not talk.

I maintained eye contact and inquired whether she was certain to which she nodded firmly. I had to think pronto and find a new approach. That moment took me back to a conversation a friend of mine, who works with children with special needs, and I had heard earlier about learning sign language for I imagine, times like this!

However, this was no time for remorse. A doctor is expected to prolong life, alleviate pain and provide the best health care they can within the setup they are in. What then do you do when your patient is deaf and dumb? Sign language translators may be common on television but they are no common occurrence in a hospital setup.

This is a patient who needed urgent dental review since they had a suspected emergent condition that could result in respiratory obstruction if not treated promptly and yet, we could not communicate. In addition, her only caregiver, her father, wasn’t always around to make any of it easier. They may have had to leave because the girl was not the only child and the father had to go and hustle for money to pay the impending hospital bill. These are the woes of life.

What then do you do when your patient cannot talk? Do you enroll in a sign language class and learn it all within a day? What if they only have hours to live? Or who is to say, minutes?

* * * *

Everyone who can talk, by talk I mean, produce sound when they articulate themselves probably like to talk of how life is unfair and tough. Well, it is. That’s why I won’t bore you with how much tough mine has been because I do not believe in comparing suffering. We all suffer differently, have different thresholds for suffering and have grown to grow through suffering.

Regardless, it can be exasperating when there is a language barrier between two people or a group leave alone a communication breakdown which had been the story of my life. With the reducing pain in my jaw following one day admission at the ward, I could see the confused expressions on the people around me and the nurses when they came and attempted to communicate with me.

The world is different when all you know is silence and reading words by running your fingers over letter on big sheets of paper. What do you do when you cannot talk or hear your doctor? What do you do when you cannot communicate with the one person who is supposed to make it all better? What do you do?