By the time Justus Peters was 4 years old, his parents realized he had a hearing problem.
His father noticed the boy would move his lips without making a sound. His mother would speak his name behind his back and he wouldn't respond. Even clapping her hands wouldn't startle her son.
In May 1981 the parents learned that Justus had inoperable inner ear damage, with a 50 percent loss in both ears that worsened later. His hearing was limited to low-frequency sounds. He wondered why everyone around him seemed to be whispering.
Justus, whose family lived in Oklahoma, got hearing aids -- back then they were big things that wrapped around the ear lobe. They helped, but they telegraphed to everyone that he was different and not "normal." His elementary school classmates called him "Elephant Ears." He resented them, his hearing aids, his mother, even God. Why had this happened to him? And what would it mean for his life?
Peters spent several decades struggling with those questions and looking for answers. After going to medical school and becoming a doctor -- Peters lives in Glen Rose and practices at Glen Rose Medical Center's Pecan Plantation clinic in Granbury -- he decided to write a memoir about his experiences. It's just been published by CreateSpace and is titled "A Walk in My Moccasins: Memoirs of a Deaf Physician."
"It's been a project for 10 years," Peters said. "It's a good story. Everybody has a good story and I wanted to get it out there."
Last week the Reporter sat down with Peters at his Pecan Plantation office. It's filled with Native American paintings and images. His mother, who is part Creek Indian, is a painter who inspired her son to to keep going when things got difficult. The Creek Indians, one of the Five Civilized Tribes, were on the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of Native Americans from their homelands in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee to Indian Territory in Oklahoma.
One of his mother's paintings hanging on his office depicts that journey where so many died and that has come to symbolize a journey of suffering and persistence.
"If a Creek Indian can go through that, you can go through anything," Peters said.
He had his own trail of tears to walk. His mother's unwavering support kept him on the right path, he said. He wanted others to hear about the power of love and determination.
"I always loved to write," he recalled. "Mom was writing all the time and had boxes full of diaries. That encourage me to write. I had my own diaries when I was a kid."
They have been valuable in writing the memoir, which combines Peters' reminiscences with poems he wrote and Native American sayings of wisdom such as this one by Mourning Dove, a Salish Indian who lived from 1888 to 1936: "...everything on earth has a purpose, every disease an herb to cure it, and every person a mission. This is the Indian theory of existence."
Peters didn't know what his mission was for a long time. During his school years he continued to get picked on and was the brunt of cruel jokes. He spent much of his time in solitude. While in high school, he accidentally put his hearing aids in the wash and had to work weekends at McDonald's to make enough money to buy new ones.
By that time in 1994 hearing aid technology had improved. The new ones weren't totally "in the canal" but they didn't wrap around his earlobe like the old ones had. And the sound improvement was amazing. When Peters received his new hearing aids, it was as if a new world had opened up around him. In his book Peters recalled he was "awestruck":
"Sounds I haven't heard, such as birds singing, and wind blowing through the trees," he wrote. "I heard water as it hit the sink for the first time ever. I couldn't believe how much I missed out. I could even hear things without looking at them!"
Peters had acted with the drama club in high school and decided to pursue theatre arts and drama in college at North Carolina State University. He got a job as a nurse's aide at a local retirement center. He liked nursing so much he entered nursing school. Then he applied to several medical schools, only to be denied for two years.
Then he learned that two universities, including Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., were aggressively recruiting Native Americans for medical school. He was accepted into Creighton, a private Jesuit school. The medical program there was intense, Peters recalled. Having a hearing impairment made it even more so.
While in med school, Peters recalled he spent his money to buy a really strong electronic stethoscope rather than medical books -- he checked those out of the library.
Some classes would be held in a large auditorium, which made hearing with hearing aids difficult. The professor would ask students questions. Peters often couldn't hear and gave a wrong answer. Then stares or laughter would follow.
While in medical school he met his future wife, Donnette. She was a talker, he recalled, and he was a listener, so it was a good fit. She "helped me embrace my deafness by making it fun," Peters said.
The story of the deaf doctor has a happy ending. Peters completed his family medicine residency at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth and became board certified in family medicine.
In addition to being a physician with GRMC, Peters also is the local health authority for Somervell County. He and Donnette have two young children.
"I think what I really have is in my home and heart," Peters wrote. "Nothing can take away what is in your heart."
Some of his current patients didn't know Peters had hearing problems until he told them or they picked up a copy of his book. He said the only time he has had difficulty communicating with a patient is when he or she says something and he has his back turned to them and the words have to be repeated.
Although he went through periods of anxiety and depression in the past, Peters said doing things he never thought possible "brightened my view of life."
"Life was meant to be lived on the outside, not on the inside where I have spent my first 30 years," Peters wrote in his book.
He also wrote a poem published in the book called "Once Again Move":
If becoming brave makes a man,
Of strength and willing to make a stand,
And trails of tears I have to go,
Or uphill battles fought from below,
This rite of passage I hope will prove,
The hearts of weak will once again move.
“I pray that ‘A Walk in My Moccasins’ gives others the hope to continue on with their dreams,” Peters said. “I’ve been blessed to experience firsthand that having a disability does not limit your chance for success in America. I want to give something back to a society that gave me the chance to succeed and achieve my dreams.”
Copies of Peters' book are available at his Pecan Plantation office or on Amazon.com; ISBN 1470007053.