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OhioHealth surgeon relies on deaf brother to assist in operating room

Megan Henry
The Columbus Dispatch
Dr. Ray Tesner, left, and brother Tim Tesner have worked together in operating rooms for OhioHealth for 35 years. Ray is a sports-medicine orthopedic surgeon at Grant Medical Center, and Tim, who is deaf, is a surgical technician.

Instead of asking for surgical instruments in the operating room by speaking, Dr. Ray Tesner uses sign language and nonverbal cues to communicate with younger brother Tim.

Ray is a sports-medicine orthopedic surgeon at OhioHealth Grant Medical Center, and Tim is a surgical technician, who is deaf. The duo have both been working together at OhioHealth for 35 years, starting only months apart.

“He’s really good mechanically, so he’s very valuable,” Ray said.

Ray, 67, and Tim, 66, grew up in Warren in northeastern Ohio with their younger sister, Carol.

“You got the brother thing, and you got the deaf thing,” Ray said. "Brothers can be brothers, and we were always fighting. He was outgoing, very personable, very lovable, so when we would go somewhere with a little deaf kid, he would be the star of the show, and he loved it.”

Their parents sent Tim to the Fort Lauderdale School for the Deaf in Florida from age six to 15 so he could learn how to read lips. When Tim returned to Ohio, his parents wanted him to assimilate with his peers, so he attended Warren G. Harding High School in Warren.

Tim started seriously learning sign language at Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. After graduating in 1977, he was a mechanic for the city of Warren and maintained its police cars.

Ray, meanwhile, was an athlete as a youth. As a linebacker at Penn State University, he played for Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno when the Nittany Lions won the 1974 Orange Bowl. He went to the University of Missouri School of Medicine and came to Columbus around 1980 for his orthopedic residency at OhioHealth.

Ray encouraged Tim to go to school to earn his surgical technician certification because he enjoyed working with his hands. The orthopedic surgeon had training in Lansing, Michigan, and noticed that Lansing Community College had a surgical technician program and a strong program for the deaf.

“It just dawned on me that since they had the deaf interpreters there, maybe (Tim) could go to surgical tech school there and be my surgical tech because he’s mechanically inclined,” Ray said.

Ray asked Tim what he thought about going back to school for his surgical technician certification; Tim said that was a good idea.

“You understand hammer and saw,” Ray recalls telling Tim.

Tim went to Lansing Community College for 2 1/2 years and earned his surgical technician certification. He started working for OhioHealth with his brother in 1985 and hasn’t looked back.

Tim has been working in the operating room for so long that he is usually able to anticipate what his brother and other surgeons need before they even ask for it. He pays close attention to what’s going on.

“He knows what I need next, and he’s helping me,” Ray said.

Reading lips goes only so far in the operating room, though, because everyone is wearing a surgical mask, so the surgeons and nurses rely heavily on nonverbal communication, such as putting two fingers together to represent scissors.

“There’s really not much communication when you’re doing the same thing all the time. It’s pretty much the same,” Tim signed as Ray interpreted.

Dr. Nate Long, an orthopedic surgeon at Grant, has been working with Tim for 17 years. He said it took some getting used to.

“I knew nothing about sign language, and so he taught me quite a bit of sign (language), which was really nice,” Long said. “It was a bit of an adjustment, but it went really smoothly, mostly because he was so experienced. It wasn’t him that needed training; it was me.”

Long said he has learned the signs for most of the surgical instruments so he can communicate with Tim in the operating room, but Tim often already knows what is needed.

“He’s usually two or three steps ahead of what I’m trying to do,” Long said. “He’s been around for so long and worked with us for so long that a lot of the time he just hands us what we need without even being asked.”

If there is confusion, Long said, the surgeon or nurse can write a message.

Dr. Stephen Wiseman, an orthopedic surgeon at Grant, has worked with Tim for about nine years and communicates with him using nonverbal cues such as cupping his hand into a hook to look like an orthopedic retractor.

“It’s like he has an extra sense,” he said. “His other senses are rather heightened to the point where he can pick up what you’re trying to accomplish.”

Wiseman said that surgical residents are “usually baffled and dumbfounded” the first time they see Tim in the operating room.

As for the Tesners, even in the operating room, brothers can be brothers.

“Generally in surgery, the nurse, the assistant, the tech listens to the doctor and doesn’t argue,” Ray said. But when it’s a brother, that’s not always the case, he said, laughing.

Tim said working with his older brother is “sometime good, sometime bad.”

“He tries to say you’re the boss, you’re the doctor, I got to listen,” Tim signed, joking back.

Despite the playful banter, the brothers wouldn’t have it any other way.

"I like working with him," Ray said. "He’s very good. All the other doctors like working with him because he’s smart.”

mhenry@dispatch.com

@megankhenry

Tim Tesner, 66, was sent by his parents from their Warren, Ohio, home to the Fort Lauderdale School for the Deaf in Florida from age six to 15 so he could learn how to read lips.