Before being sedated for surgery three years ago, Allysa Dittmar was told that the sign language interpreter she’d requested hadn’t shown up. Once the surgical team donned face masks in the operating room, she couldn’t understand anything they said.
Dittmar, who has been deaf since birth, says this surgery experience was the first time in her life that she felt “completely powerless.” She didn’t want others to feel the same, so Dittmar — a Master of Health Science graduate from The Johns Hopkins University — and fellow health science graduate, Aaron Hsu, launched a company to produce a new transparent surgical mask known as ClearMask.
The team aims to improve operating room communications with deaf, hard of hearing and other vulnerable patients. When they gave a pitch during the Johns Hopkins Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine’s Shark Tank competition in early 2018, ClearMask won the audience vote. As of September 2018, the company had raised more than $100,000 from various sources and planned to bring the mask to market in late 2019.
Dittmar has spent much of her life trying to understand what others are saying and make herself understood — with remarkable success. Two weeks before the start of her sophomore year at Johns Hopkins, she arrived home to discover that her mother had just taken her own life. Dittmar tried to summon emergency responders but couldn’t without speaking to them on the phone.
After joining the Maryland Governor’s Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, she helped expand the state’s text-to-911 services from a single pilot program to counties across Maryland. She also spearheaded changes to state Medicaid regulations for “telehealth” mental health counseling. Now deaf patients in Maryland can use videophones to connect with mental health professionals fluent in sign language.Read the full story, “The ClearMask Difference,” in Johns Hopkins University Arts & Sciences Magazine.