By Linda Weiford, WSU News
PULLMAN, Wash. – Kimi Ross, the first deaf student to attend Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, doesn’t have to hear whines, snarls and hisses to know when an animal is distressed.
She uses her alert eyes, sturdy hands and big heart. And after she graduates in two years, reindeer, yaks and Alaska Natives stand to benefit.
Ross, 46, was diagnosed with an unexplained hearing deficit at age 10 that has gradually worsened. Hearing aids helped for a decade, enabling her to study violin and earn a degree in music at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif.
“People’s eyes get big when I tell them I had planned to teach violin. After all, here I am: deaf!” she said. Her speech is deliberate and punctuated with chuckles as she peers intently toward her listener’s face to read lips. She prefers to describe herself as deaf rather than hearing-impaired: “It is what it is,” she said.
When Ross was about 20, as blackbirds flitted about on a tree she sat beneath while reading, she looked up to realize the natural world had gone quiet.
“Blackbirds are noisy. When I couldn’t hear them, I figured it was the batteries in my hearing aids so I went and replaced them,” she recalled. “When that didn’t help, I thought the aid itself was broken. You could say I was in denial about the progressiveness of my hearing loss.”
Eventually, she accepted this hard truth: The hearing aids that had long amplified the caring timbre of her mother’s voice, the trilling of blackbirds, the bowing of a violin no longer helped. So great was her hearing impairment that few meaningful sounds were reaching her ears.
“There wasn’t much left to amplify,” she said, so she removed the hearing aids for good. “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t scare me.”
Afflicted by the third most common physical condition after arthritis and heart disease, Ross was forced to abandon her dream of teaching music.
With willpower as an ally and a trained black Labrador named Shadow as her guide, she enrolled at the University of Arizona for a master’s degree in special education. There, surrounded by other deaf people, she learned American Sign Language and became more proficient at “speech reading,” so-called because it involves reading another person’s gestures and expressions as well as lips.
Sign language liberated her from the social isolation she’d felt in a world brimming with mumbo-jumbo, she said. Even with hearing aids, “I couldn’t figure out why people mumbled so much. Then, if I didn’t respond, they thought I was rude.”
After graduating, Ross worked as a special education teacher on a Navajo reservation and then made a geographically vertical leap to teach in rural Alaska. Instead of feeling isolated by distance, culture and cold winters, “I felt like I finally found home,” she said.
Working in the Inupiaq Eskimo village of Kobuk, she met her husband, Fred, also a teacher. When the couple began raising sled dogs, no veterinarians worked nearby to spay and neuter them. Then a village-hopping “bush vet” showed up and performed the surgeries on Ross’ kitchen table.
“That’s how it’s done in rural Alaska when there’s nothing else to work with. It was my introduction to veterinary medicine,” Ross said.
She and her husband eventually settled near the tiny Athabaskan village of Chistochina where residents live off fish from rivers and game animals from the abundant wilderness.
Secluded towns and villages scattered across Oregon-sized regions present all kinds of problems when there’s little or no access to veterinary care, said Ross. These range from unwanted dogs running in packs and biting people, to animals freezing and starving to death, to the threat of rabies.
So she decided to do something about it. With that signature determination in tow – along with a truck full of furniture and a horse trailer carrying kennels of sled dogs – she and her husband left Alaska for Pullman. After researching the area and the school, she planned to enroll at WSU’s veterinary college.
“We took a big chance,” she said. “I’m older. I’m deaf. I wasn’t sure if it would work.”
Several years later, Ross remains enraptured by the soft beauty of the Palouse and buoyed by its supportive people, she said. Now in her second year of veterinary school, she grasps the instructions – including complex and hard-to-spell science terms – with help from sign language interpreters, classmates who sign and take notes, and methodical, patient professors.
Steve Hines, who has taught at WSU for 24 years, said having Ross in his systemic pathology class this semester has enriched his teaching skills.
“During lectures, I’ll stop and check in with Kimi and the entire class to ask if they’re following my pace and whether I need to re-explain anything,” he said. “I’m more mindful of what I’m presenting and how I’m presenting it.”
Rudolf’s own vet?
After Ross graduates, she plans to work as a vet in Alaska, traveling rural areas where veterinary care is spread thin. Not only will she help animals, but she’ll help people take care of them, she said.
“In a way, I can go back to what I love doing, which is teaching,” she said. “I’ll educate clients about having healthy relationships with their sled dogs, their yaks, their reindeer and goats – you name it.”
Ironically, Ross’ deafness will make her a terrific communicator, said Hines.
“Kimi really engages when she communicates. By focusing so hard, she makes you feel like you’re the only one around and that you really matter,” he said. “Humans and animals alike will connect with her.”
And that, no doubt, is music to her ears.
Kimi Ross, WSU College of Veterinary Medicine, firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Hines, WSU College of Veterinary Medicine, 509-335-6069, email@example.com
Linda Weiford, WSU News, 509-335-7209, firstname.lastname@example.org