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Caitlin using her own experience as a deaf nurse to help others

Image shows a nurse smiling into the camera outside a hospital

Starting your first job as a newly-qualified nurse just before the pandemic struck would be enough of a challenge for anyone.

But it was doubly so for Caitlin Tanner, who was born profoundly deaf and relies heavily on lip-reading to communicate – not easy when you are working in intensive care and everyone has to wear face masks.

Now she has led a new initiative designed to improve the care of hospital patients with hearing aids or cochlear implants.

At the same time, award-winner Caitlin is developing her own career, having completed her masters and now embarking on a PhD exploring the experiences of deaf nurses in the UK.

Image shows a nurse smiling into the camera outside a hospital building “I was born with bilateral profound deafness but nobody really knew until I was about four years old,” said Caitlin. “Then I had hearing aids growing up. Only the one hearing aid, as I’m completely deaf in the left ear.

“I could lip read but it was really difficult to hear what people were saying. It was really challenging at that time.

“I had cochlear implant surgery when I was 17. So that was in the middle of my A-levels. It meant a whole month of not hearing because when you are recovering from surgery, you can’t have any volume or sound at all.

“If I took my implants out, I wouldn’t be able to hear anything. Cochlear implants take away the natural sound in your hearing.

“But the change from having one hearing aid to two cochlear implants has been amazing. If I know somebody’s voice I can pick out what they are saying.

“It is still difficult. I still rely on lip-reading and other assistive devices like radio aids for lectures in university. But it’s better than when I had the one hearing aid.”

Growing up, Caitlin was not sure what she wanted to do. It was when she had cochlear implant surgery in 2016, and the way she was cared for by the doctors and nurses, that made her decide to go into healthcare.

Despite the interruption to her studies, Caitlin passed her A-levels and went on to gain a first-class degree in adult nursing.

She started work in Morriston ITU not long before the onset of Covid, which, Caitlin said, was really like being thrown into the deep end.

“It was an emergency situation because we had no idea what was coming. I had to say to my managers I didn’t know how I was going to cope because everyone was wearing masks,” she recalled.

“I was exhausted at the end of every shift because I was trying hard to listen, to focus on what people were saying, and to care for my patients, which was obviously the priority.

“I would get home from 12-hour shifts and I’d go straight to bed and be asleep immediately. I don’t think anyone realises how much energy and focus it takes out of you when you have no natural hearing.”

There were some communication difficulties at the beginning, especially as Covid required staff to wear PPE including face masks.

Caitlin remembers asking colleagues to talk a little louder, to repeat things clearly, or not to turn away as they spoke.

“I primarily rely on lip reading but when I haven’t got that, I have to rely on the sound of the voice. They would have to speak clearly, speak a bit louder, so I can listen to them,” she said.

“It was difficult when you’re new in a place and don’t want to get off on the wrong foot.

“But I saw a massive shift in the way they communicated with me. It improved one hundred per cent.”

As if working long, tiring shifts as a nurse wasn’t demanding enough, Caitlin also spent three years part-time studying for an MA in education for health professionals.

“I’d go to work, do a 12-hour shift, be exhausted, and on my days off I’d be writing an essay. I had no time off, no time to myself. I say to my parents – I’m like a permanent student. I love learning.”

Further proof of which is the fact that, while completing her Masters, Caitlin also successfully applied to do her PhD – and was awarded the prestigious Swansea University Research Excellence Scholarship.

Her doctorate focuses on the experiences of deaf nurses in the UK. While her role as a deaf nurse is by no means unique, 25-year-old Caitlin said it was not common either.

“From reading the literature, I found that there is inadvertently some discrimination, some biases towards deaf people coming into healthcare.

“A lot of people think that, if you can’t hear, how can you look after a patient? A lot of the research I’m going to be conducting is into how we can support these nurses so we can safely get them into healthcare.

“It’s something that is definitely needed. As much as I’m studying deaf nurses, this is still applicable to older nurses who have age-related hearing loss, and young people coming into nursing.

“Many of them may have progressive hearing loss because of noise from earbuds and headphones.

“I definitely want to use my experience to support deaf people to come into nursing or into healthcare because I know they don’t believe they can access that kind of career path.”

Caitlin recently finished in ICU after three and a half years to focus on her doctorate, though she will continue nursing by working bank shifts.

And she has used her experience to design a deaf care plan for patients wearing hearing aids or cochlear implants.

She presented it at an innovation meeting in the intensive care unit, where it will be implemented soon.

Image shows a young woman with awards at an award ceremony “In university we don’t get taught about hearing aids or cochlear implants,” Caitlin said. “The feedback I got from the meeting was that a lot of nurses on the ward might have to ask the doctors, ‘How do we change the batteries? How do we do this or that?’.

“A lot of education is needed. Communication with deaf patients is such an important thing, especially in ITU.

“The care plan is a guide that staff can use to look after them. Before I finished, I went around the unit, doing some teaching. I’m really excited about it.

“The plan is to trial it in ITU, then roll it out across Morriston and then, hopefully, the wider Swansea Bay.”

Although Caitlin has no specific longer-term career plans, she does see herself eventually moving into lecturing or clinical research.

Her commitment to learning has already been recognised. She won the Learner of the Year category in the health board’s 2022 LOV Awards (see right) after being nominated by one of her ITU colleagues.

“It was a shock,” Caitlin said. “I wasn’t expecting to be nominated and I certainly wasn’t expecting to win. I was really, really happy that my hard work had been recognised.”

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