The Switched at Birth star explains why she's actually thankful to have Ménière's disease
Ask anyone who watches Switched at Birth, and they’ll tell you that Katie Leclerc is incredibly convincing in her role as a deaf teenager on the ABC Family show—so much so that many people ask if she’s actually deaf like her character, Daphne Vasquez. Katie’s not, but she does suffer from a condition called Ménière's disease, which causes intermittent hearing loss, along with vertigo. Although you may not have heard of it, Ménière's disease currently affects an estimated 615,000 people in the U.S., according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders—and 45,500 new people are diagnosed each year.
Katie discovered she had hearing issues around 2005, when she volunteered to be filmed taking a hearing test for a video about hearing loss. “After I got out of the booth, they looked at me and were like, ‘You need hearing aids,’” she says. “My hearing had deteriorated so slowly over time that I don’t even realize I had hearing loss.” Katie’s sister had actually been previously diagnosed with Ménière's disease, so everyone in her family just assumed that Katie had it, too. It wasn’t until five years later that she received an official diagnosis from a doctor.
So what is it actually like to live with a disease that can strike you temporarily deaf—or completely off-balance—at any time?
“My ears ring probably 80 percent of the time,” says Katie. “My ears are full probably 60 percent of the time, where you feel like you have to pop them. There’s lots of pressure. Probably 60 percent of the time I get a severe head rush, like when you stand up too quickly. The full-blown vertigo attacks where it’s miserable, those only happen I would say maybe once every six weeks.”
Now, Katie takes steps to prevent her symptoms from becoming too bad in the first place. Since both the hearing loss and dizziness are caused by excessive fluid buildup in the inner-ear, doctors often recommend limiting salt intake and exercising (which can help your body flush out extra water). At this point, Katie’s hearing loss isn’t bad enough (or consistent enough) that she needs to wear hearing aids.
“The funny thing about Ménière's disease in particular is I’d say everyone’s symptoms are different and they’re different from day to day,” Katie says. “It can be incredibly frustrating. … They say that the depression rates of people who have full-blown Ménière's are the same depression rates as people who have terminal cancer. It makes me sad when I hear that statistic, but for me it’s a different experience. For me, a positive attitude has been the biggest tool against Ménière's disease.”
While the condition might seem like a curse—it once left Katie with a bad spell of vertigo for four hours—she doesn’t see it that way. “Without Ménière's disease, I wouldn’t be able to play Daphne on Switched,” she says. “It’s a way for me to have a foot in both worlds. I feel comfortable portraying a girl with hearing loss because I have hearing loss; it’s a huge blessing for me.”
Katie felt a connection to the deaf community even before she realized she had Ménière's disease. Not only did her sister suffer from the condition prior to Katie’s first hearing test, but Katie also took sign language as her foreign language in high school. So when the role of Daphne came on her agent’s radar, Katie and her agent (who’s now her fiancé) knew she would be perfect for it.
“In fact, Daphne was not the first character with hearing loss I’d portrayed,” says Katie. “But this was the first time it wasn’t going to be a one-off character on a TV show.”
Switched at Birth has several deaf characters—and one episode was performed entirely in sign language. It’s helped the deaf community take a huge step toward increased awareness, says Katie.
“We had someone who said, ‘I’m a hearing person, and thanks to Switched at Birth, I’m able to better relate to deaf people and have a closer relationship with my cousin who’s deaf,’” says Katie. Other deaf viewers say that, thanks to Switched at Birth, strangers no longer stare at them at the grocery store. “It’s so common,” says Katie.
Because of her experiences with Ménière's disease, Katie says the most important thing you can do for your health is to maintain an upbeat outlook: “No matter what is going on with your body that particular day, I’d say a positive attitude really, really strongly influences the way the symptoms within your body react,” she says. “If you wake up and go, ‘I’m so happy to be awake right now’—even if you’re dizzy—you’re going to have a better day. You just will.”
Source: Women's Health