Even though she was born deaf, Betsy Bañuelos, a May 2016 graduate of The University of Texas at El Paso, has always focused on what she can do, rather than what she can’t do.
As a child, Bañuelos wanted a job where she could help people, but she never imagined that she could have a career as a critical member of a health care team until she came to UTEP and put her skills to the test.
In the past two-and-a-half years, Bañuelos has overcome hearing and language barriers to successfully graduate from UTEP as the first deaf student in the history of the Clinical Laboratory Sciences (CLS) program.
According to the Mayo Clinic, up to 70 percent of all decisions made about a patient’s diagnosis and treatment are based on test results from clinical laboratory professionals.
“Being deaf is not a disability; it’s a different way of looking at the world, but it does pose some challenges,” said Bañuelos, who reads lips and knows American Sign Language (ASL). “With the help of understanding and patient faculty and peers, I was able to finally find a niche of my own to shape.”
When Bañuelos started the CLS program in 2014, signs for words like “cytoplasmic” or “electrophoresis” didn’t exist in American Sign Language.
Bañuelos worked with four interpreters from UTEP’s Center for Accommodations and Support Services who translated what was said during class into sign language.
Rather than have them finger spell long and complicated words, Bañuelos generated 400 new signs to create a lexicon of clinical terms.
“Learning the names of all those organisms is not easy because they’re not words you hear in everyday language,” explained Elizabeth Camacho, a lecturer in the CLS program. “Hematology is like learning one language. Microbiology is learning another language.”
Bañuelos developed signs for clinical terms based on their definitions or descriptions. She did so by parsing words like “parasitology,” then combining the sign for study, which is the meaning of “ology,” with the sign for bug or parasite. To indicate plasma, she added the letter “P” to the sign for blood.
“If I can make CLS accessible to those who have certain boundaries and create a comprehensive list of words to effectively communicate, then I know I’m on the right track,” said Bañuelos, who plans to share the vocabulary she’s created with other deaf students.
In order to fully comprehend the material, Bañuelos needed to work with interpreters who could keep up with the science jargon.
Interpreters like Oscar Pedroza did more than just interpret; he also learned.
Pedroza has been an interpreter at UTEP for 18 years. He previously served as the director of the El Paso Center of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Inc. for 12 years, where he established programs that helped deaf and hard of hearing individuals overcome challenges.
Although he also interprets for New Mexico State University and the Las Cruces Public Schools, for the past couple of years most of Pedroza’s time has been dedicated to working with Bañuelos. For homework each night, he read the chapters assigned in the syllabus to learn the material.
“To do my job well, I have to understand (the material) thoroughly before I can interpret it for (Bañuelos) because I’m hearing English but translating it into ASL, so that change is happening constantly,” said Pedroza, who speaks English, Spanish and American Sign Language. He has basic knowledge in Mexican, Japanese, and Chinese sign languages.
Over time, Pedroza and Bañuelos developed a comfortable synergy.
“I like his style,” Bañuelos said. “He has a strong personality and he’s motivated … We’ve had a couple of kinks, but it’s been a smooth relationship.”
On May 19, Pedroza was surprised with an honorary CLS degree during the Clinical Laboratory Sciences pinning ceremony.
“It’s a lot of studying on my part,” Pedroza said with a laugh. “She had to make the grade and pass, but I had to understand what the heck everybody was saying.”
According to Camacho, this was the first time a deaf student from the CLS program rotated through the hospitals. But before Bañuelos started her clinical rotations, Camacho had to make sure the clinical sites had enough room for an interpreter.
Pedroza had to meet the same clinical compliance requirements as the rest of the lab personnel. He underwent immunizations, tuberculosis testing and safety and HIPPA orientations.
From June 2015 to April 2016, Bañuelos rotated through the blood bank, chemistry, hematology, microbiology, coagulation, serology, urinalysis and phlebotomy sections in the clinical laboratories at University Medical Center and the Hospitals of Providence Sierra Campus and East Campus. Each rotation lasted between two and six weeks and allowed her to gain experience while applying the skills she learned in the program.
During the first week of each rotation, Pedroza relayed all the information about the different tasks Bañuelos was assigned to do. Bañuelos analyzed body fluids for glucose and cholesterol; performed coagulation tests to measure the time it takes for blood to clot; and tested blood to determine a person’s blood type.
It also took a couple of days for her co-workers to get used to addressing her directly instead of asking Pedroza to “tell her this,” or “ask her that.” Eventually, they would write notes or Bañuelos would read their lips.
Even though Bañuelos showed that she was capable of working in a lab, it’s now up to her future employers to look beyond her deafness and focus on her qualifications.
“I think that she can do it,” said Lorraine Torres, Ed.D., CLS program director. “The biggest concern is changing the attitudes of (employers) so they can see how people with disabilities can do an awesome job. She will definitely find her niche as long as people start looking at how awesome she is.”
Bañuelos has already had a job interview at one of the hospitals. If she’s hired, she will be one of the first deaf clinical laboratory professionals in Texas.
As the first person in her family to graduate from UTEP, Bañuelos hopes to show others – especially children like her oldest son, who is also deaf – what people who are deaf can accomplish through hard work and dedication. Her sister, who graduated from The University of Phoenix, is also deaf.
“My son’s friends come over and say, ‘You’re deaf. You can’t work in the hospital,’” said Bañuelos, who is married and has three children. “I tell them, ‘That’s not true. Are you kidding? I work in a hospital.’ And it gives me an opportunity to explain the things that I do and then word spreads. Deaf people can sure work in a hospital or any medical field and I’m proof of that. It’s a process that will get you there, slowly, but surely. If it’s something you really want, just go out and get it.”
Author: Laura L. Acosta – UTEP Communications