Mark Leekoff excels as School of Medicine’s first deaf student
Published: Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, October 26, 2011 00:10
Mark Leekoff has spent his life taking "leaps of faith."
The 24-year-old from Annandale, Va., took a leap last year when he was accepted into the West Virginia University School of Medicine as the department's first deaf student.
Born with a profound hearing loss, Leekoff knew medical school would be a struggle. But, with the help of supportive parents, he acquired big goals from a young age.
"At the time of my diagnosis, the doctor told my parents that I would most likely never be able to communicate with hearing people. Studies have shown that the average deaf adult has the literary skills equivalent to a fourth grader," Leekoff said. "I would love to tell that doctor that I'm a second-year medical student at WVU. From the diagnosis all the way to med school, I've exceeded what people expect of me."
At the age of three, Leekoff was one of the first children in the United States to receive a cochlear implant – an electronic device that stimulates the auditory nerve and allows partial hearing.
"When I was born, I couldn't hear anything. My parents sent me to early intervention programs and made the decision to get me the implant before the FDA had even approved it," Leekoff said. "It took a huge leap of faith for them. They paid out of pocket for something with no guarantee that I'd ever be able to talk."
Leekoff did learn to talk. He went on to graduate cum laude from Tufts University in Medford, Mass., with a bachelor's degree in biology, and he earned the Ellen C. Myers award for academic excellence in the face of adverse circumstances.
But, his journey wasn't easy.
"I remember struggling learning how to pronounce words correctly. From the second to the eighth grade, I didn't have many friends – people looked at me differently," he said. "At that age, you don't think about the odds being against you. But, I do remember the frustration."
Now, Leekoff plans to use his experiences to benefit his future patients through a special firsthand perspective.
"I realized I was surrounded by a great medical team, and I wanted to do the same for others. When I'm telling that parent about their child, whether it be for hearing loss or some form of disease or disability, I can be an example and let them know it's not the end of the line here," he said. "Reach for the stars, and you can overcome the limitations of your disability. I know what they've gone through. The deaf community has a lot of stereotypes, and, one patient at a time, I'd like to change that."
As far as medical school goes, Leekoff is doing well, with the help of understanding peers and professors.
"I guarantee that medical school is a lot harder for me compared to the rest of my classmates. Medicine isn't easy. But, the WVU School of Medicine has gone above and beyond what they needed to do to ensure my success," he said. "This is a great community. You would think med school is competitive, but we work together. I've maintained some really good friends, and that helps me."