PORTLAND, Maine — There’s no easy way in sign language to say “hydrochlorothiazide.”

Nurses must communicate with their patients about what medications they’ve taken or will be prescribed. With a deaf nurse, a sign language interpreter can make introductions and help give directions, but the conversation hits a bump in the road with the tongue-twisting polysyllabic names of medicines.

“I can’t spell it and the interpreter can’t pronounce it,” said Joanie Grondin. The 23-year-old Windham native faced the medication naming problem frequently while learning to overcome the challenges of deafness during her training in the University of Southern Maine’s nursing program.

Grondin is one of nearly 1,700 slated to graduate from USM this spring and nearly 900 registered to march in Saturday morning’s graduation ceremony at the Cumberland County Civic Center. Retiring U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, is the keynote commencement speaker.

Grondin is also a single mother of two children, ages 4 and 3, in case keeping up with the nursing curriculum wasn’t difficult enough.

“I would prefer to be with them all the time, but in nursing, you just can’t do that,” Grondin said through sign language interpreter Julia Schafer during a Thursday evening interview with the Bangor Daily News. “I had a really good support system. It wasn’t easy, but it was possible because of them.”

Grondin said her parents, sister and aunt helped watch Nolan and Charley while she went to classes or worked exhausting 12-plus-hour clinical shifts at Mercy Hospital in Portland or Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick.

Back home, the 2007 Windham High School graduate would study late into the nights while her children slept. If one of the kids woke up crying, sound-sensitive alarm lights would flash to inform Grondin she needed to switch back from college student to mommy.

Baby monitors set up throughout her home would flicker to indicate visually whether she needed to react to a minicrisis somewhere during daytime hours.

“Sometimes, one of the kids will run up to me crying, and I won’t know what happened or who started the fight, because I can’t hear,” she said. “I’ll have to get both of their stories and figure it out.”

But at least at home, Nolan and Charley have grown up knowing how to communicate with a deaf mother.

In a hospital setting, patients have different problems and often little experience with communicating with someone who is deaf. And even when she gets beyond naming the medications — usually by thrusting the pill bottle label into the face of her interpreter — she has to contend with tasks like listening to a patient’s lungs in search of respiratory irregularities.

For that, she uses a special amplified stethoscope — Grondin can faintly hear noises if they’re extremely loud or amplified. Another challenge, another solution.

“So far, there has never been a patient who’s had an issue with my deafness,” Grondin said. “I just come in and say, ‘Hi, I’m Joanie, I’m your nurse, I’m deaf and this is my interpreter.’ Within [a few] minutes they’re fine with everything. I really thought I’d get more negative responses. I was prepared for the worst, but none of my patients have had negative responses.”

Grondin’s next challenge is the same one facing the rest of USM’s nearly 1,700 soon-to-be graduates: Finding a job.

She said she hopes initially to work in acute care — short-term treatment in reaction to an injury or period of illness — and then move into a community clinic or school facility.

According to a 2011 Maine Department of Labor report, health care is expected to remain a growth industry in the state, with nearly 500 registered nurse jobs opening annually through 2018. Increases also are expected in the numbers of pharmacists, physician assistants and physical therapists in Maine over the next six years.

Grondin is already bracing for having to overcome deafness in job interviews, and in trying to convince potential employers her lack of hearing won’t prevent her from giving quality care to patients.

“I need to stand up for myself and advocate for myself,” she said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.