As she was heading into surgery three years ago, Allysa Dittmar ’14, ’17 (BSPH) was told that the sign language interpreter she’d requested hadn’t shown up. Once her surgical team donned facemasks, she couldn’t understand anything they told her or asked her because she couldn’t read their lips or see their facial expressions.
Dittmar, who has been deaf since birth, said it was the first time in her life she felt “completely powerless.” And she didn’t want others in her situation to feel the same fear and frustration.
So she and her personal and business partner, Aaron Hsu ’14, ’15 (BSPH), have launched a company to produce a new transparent surgical mask, known as ClearMask. Their aim is to improve operating room communications with deaf, hard of hearing, and other vulnerable patients. The company has raised more than $100,000 so far, and plans to bring the mask to market late next year.
Dittmar has spent much of her life trying to understand what others are saying and to make herself understood—with remarkable success. “I’m motivated, meaning I typically don’t take no for an answer,” she says. “I will try to find a solution for it, no matter how we have to get there.”
Hsu, a first-generation American, also dealt with communication barriers while growing up. He acted as interpreter and translator for his Mandarin-speaking parents, immigrants from Taiwan. He now designs and conducts clinical trials for the Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Dittmar, who had been class valedictorian of her high school outside Princeton, New Jersey, had ambitious academic goals when she arrived at Homewood as a freshman. But when she requested a sign-language interpreter, she was told she was the first student to ask for one. “So I worked with the disabilities office to educate them, tell them what my needs are,” she says.
Two weeks before the start of her sophomore year, tragedy struck. She arrived home one day to discover that her mother had just taken her own life. When Dittmar tried to summon emergency responders, she found she couldn’t do so without speaking to them on her phone, which was impossible.
So, after joining the Maryland Governor’s Office for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in 2015, she helped push to expand the state’s text-to-911 services from a single pilot program to counties across Maryland. In February 2018, the state’s Board of Public Works approved $2.4 million to extend the program. Last June, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention honored Dittmar for her work on text-to-911.
She also spearheaded changes to state Medicaid regulations for “telehealth” mental health counseling. Now deaf patients in Maryland can use videophones in their home, rather than traveling long distances to a remote site, and can connect with mental health professionals fluent in sign language.
Dittmar recently began work as a research associate at Gallaudet University, as she and Hsu work with Harbor Designs and Manufacturing of Baltimore on producing ClearMask. They say it will be the first transparent surgical face mask on the market that fully exposes the lower face.
In addition to aiding deaf patients, says Dittmar, the mask may also help ease the suffering of children with compromised immune systems. She recently spoke with the father of an 8-year-old boy with leukemia who was surrounded by people in masks during the last stages of his illness. He told her that if his son could have seen the doctors and nurses smile at him and comfort him, it could have made a huge difference.