StoryCorps at SHC: Carlie Arbaugh

It took me a little while to accept that this is something that's part of my life now.


Carlie Arbaugh: I was a medical student here at Stanford between 2015 and 2019. And going into my final year of medical school, I started to experience some hearing loss. And didn't think too much of it. Initially, I thought maybe it was just an ear infection. And so I was very surprised to be diagnosed with a rare condition called cholesteatoma. And it's actually a benign condition but can be quite aggressive and can lead to pretty significant hearing loss. So I was really, really scared. Even as a almost new doctor, and having a little more information than the average person about medicine, I still didn't know anything about this. And then I discovered that I would need to have surgery to have this removed. I had never had surgery before at that point in my life, so I didn't even know what to expect. And that was a really interesting experience, because I actually was planning to apply into general surgery for residency.

Just being in an operative setting where I had rotated was also unique, in that I was being cared for by some of the people that I worked with. And so I finished that surgery and then was told that I would need another surgery six to nine months afterwards, to look and confirm if everything had been removed or not. I, in the interim, had matched to Stanford General surgery residency. And I remember actually working as an intern the night before, and then going home and thinking, okay, now I can't eat anything after midnight, I'm ready for surgery. And then the next day being back in the same location, and needing to put on a hospital gown, and get an IV, and prep for surgery. So it was a little surreal to experience that quick transition, from being the provider hours before to now being the patient.

But I think it really has changed my perspective and the way that I care for patients. I feel a lot more connection to patients when I'm preparing them to undergo an operation. When I am consenting them or delivering news about a new diagnosis, I can really empathize with the anxiety that they feel, the trust that it takes. And for us as surgeons or physicians or anyone in healthcare, these sorts of procedures can start to feel very routine. Because it's what you do every day, in and out. But for your patient, it's life-changing. And so I think having compassion for that, and the fears associated with that, that has been really key for me.

It took me a little while to accept that this is something that's part of my life now. There still is a lot of bias and stigma out there, and so I've been pretty private about it for the most part. But I want to change that because I think that there is a lot of power in sharing this. In addition to having a stronger connection with any sort of surgical patient, I've felt a stronger connection with community that lives with disability, especially when it comes to hearing, because my personal experience now. I've been very inspired by physicians who are living with disabilities that are outspoken about their disabilities. And so this is a small example in my case, but I would like to contribute to that movement with my own personal story. So I think sharing here is kind of a first step on that journey.

Sound Editor: Emily Hsiao

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