Brian Stanfield's sinuses are so stuffed, he tells the doctor, that he can hardly breathe during the day and snores thunderously all night. "And I can't hear," complains Stanfield, 43. "I have to ask people to repeat themselves. It's frustrating."

Without missing a beat, family practitioner Carolyn Stern deadpans, "Gee, Brian, I wonder what that's like." The patient bursts out laughing—and so does 37-year-old Dr. Stern, who happens to be deaf. It's not the first time Stanfield has overlooked that detail. "Her deafness has never been an issue for either of us," he says.

To Stern's deaf patients, however, her handicap is a huge factor—in her favor. One of a dozen deaf doctors in the U.S., Stern practices medicine in Rochester, N.Y., home of the 1,200-student National Technical Institute for the Deaf, the country's largest technical college for the non-hearing. Since the school's founding 37 years ago, Rochester has attracted the largest non-hearing population per capita in the nation—90,000 of the city's 350,000 residents. "People with disabilities have the hardest time finding good medical care," Stern says. "I came here to change that."

She already has, says Brett Elliott, an interpreter for the practice Stern shares with Timothy Malia, 36, a hearing physician fluent in sign language. Of their 600 patients, 30 percent are deaf. "They say, 'I'm finally able to express myself,'" says Elliott. "If Dr. Stern is busy, a deaf patient will say, 'I'll wait.'" Their patience is rewarded, says Wendy Sells, 37. "Before, I'd have to write notes trying to explain the problem to hearing doctors," says Sells, using sign language. "With a deaf doctor, it's so much better. And she's not just a deaf doctor, she's a great doctor."

Her office also is deaf-friendly: staff know sign language, and flashing lights alert patients when someone is about to enter the examination room. But those who know her testify that Stern's success has less to do with amenities than with her compassion. "Being deaf made her a survivor and an idealist who wanted to change the world for the better," says her mother, Barbara.

Now 62 and a former teacher in Maryland, Barbara contracted German measles from her engineer husband, Robert, 62, when she was pregnant with Carolyn. Still, the baby—the first of three girls—seemed healthy until the age of 14 months. Then, on a family outing, her great-aunt blew a whistle and Stern was the only one who didn't turn around.

"The doctor told my parents that I'd never amount to anything and to send me to a deaf school," says Stern. Because she had some hearing in one ear, they had her fitted with hearing aids, hired audiologists and speech pathologists and sent her off to public school when she was 5. The first lesson she learned was that people can be cruel to those who are different. "I was teased mercilessly," she says.

In 1974 the family moved from Smithtown, N.Y., and eventually settled in Potomac, Md., where the school district had a mainstreaming program meant to help disabled students attend regular classes. Still, the new sixth grader had trouble finding playmates. "Everyone had already formed cliques," she says. To counter her loneliness she excelled academically, even taking up the violin. "We put yellow tape on some of the strings so I would know the notes," she says.

Stern got an inkling of her future calling from a science teacher at Winston Churchill High School who suffered from a disability of his own: epilepsy. It was Stern who ran for help whenever he suffered a seizure. "I became fascinated with how the body works," she says. "Finally, I saw where I fit in."

After graduating in 1982, she attended Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, majoring in biochemistry. But she had difficulty keeping up—she couldn't follow the lectures and take notes at the same time. "I stood up and asked if anyone would be willing to have their notes carbon-copied," she says. "It took three nerve-racking days before one student finally agreed to help me."

But college was also where she made friends who accepted her deafness as a quirk like any other. One night, for example, her roommates started receiving calls from a heavy breather. They demanded that Stern put in her hearing aids and answer the phone the next time it rang. Then they watched, giggling, as she defeated the culprit. "I kept saying, 'Can you speak up? I'm deaf,'" she recalls, laughing. "He must have hyperventilated and passed out, because he never called back."

Stern graduated cum laude in 1986 and headed to Northwestern University Medical School. Her professors agreed to wear a microphone that transmitted directly into Stern's hearing aids, and the school provided a sign-language interpreter to help her follow class discussions. But two years later, citing cost concerns, the administration announced that it would no longer pay for interpreters. Fearing she would fall behind, Stern sued. "Just what I wanted to be doing with my medical school," she says ruefully. "But I thought, 'If not for me, I'll do it for other deaf students.'" After a two-year struggle, the school agreed to continue the service and the suit was settled.

Then came a more daunting challenge. Shortly after starting her residency at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., in 1990, Stern realized while examining a patient that she couldn't hear a thing through her amplified stethoscope. To her doctors' bafflement, she had gone completely deaf. The loss gave Stern a sense of mission. "That's when I knew," she says, "that I was meant to work with the deaf community." But it also added a fresh burden: She was about to get married. But when she did, the union floundered. "I got very depressed," says Stern, who was divorced in 1993, "but I tried to keep my sense of humor."

The following year was better: Some of her hearing was restored after she received a cochlear implant, which delivers electrical stimuli to the auditory nerve. She also met her future husband, Alan Spanjer, 42, a hearing man with deaf parents. Following their first date a smitten Stern asked him, "Would you ever marry a deaf woman?" He would, and did, in May 1994. By then Stern had joined a practice in Chicago where 300 of the group's 2,000 patients were deaf. But she decided that she belonged in Rochester with Malia, whom she had met in 1996. "He wanted a practice that was completely accessible to the deaf," she says, adding slyly, "but we don't discriminate. We see hearing patients too."

From the moment she moved to Rochester in 1998, Stern felt at home. "I would walk into a gas station to ask for directions and someone would give them to me in sign language," she says. She and Spanjer, a part-time printing broker and full-time dad to Zipporah, 6, and Benjamin, 3, are renovating their three-bedroom home, built in the 1920s. The couple are expecting a third child at any moment.

But that hasn't slowed her down. She still goes into the office. After sharing a laugh with Brian Stanfield she places her supercharged stethoscope to his chest and listens. She diagnoses a severe sinus infection and recommends that he see an allergist. Then, with a reassuring pat, she hurries him on his way. After all, there are 23 other patients waiting to see the doctor today.

Christina Cheakalos
Michelle York in Rochester

  • Contributors:
  • Michelle York.