For as long as he can remember, Norman Lester, MD, wanted to become a physician. Choosing a specialty, however, took a little longer.
It wasn’t until his third year at the University of Maryland School of Medicine that he discovered otolaryngology—more familiarly known as the diagnosis and treatment of ear, nose and throat (ENT) disorders.
“Honestly, I thought an ENT might just take out tonsils,” Dr. Lester says with a laugh. “I quickly learned that head and neck anatomy is fantastically complicated. There a lot going on in a small space.”
Dr. Lester remains fascinated by otolaryngology’s sheer breadth of conditions and diseases, with surgical treatments that range from intricate oncology procedures to, yes, routine tonsillectomies.
Otolaryngology also affords Dr. Lester the opportunity to cultivate lasting relationships with a variety of patients. Many of them have referred their children to him when they needed treatment.
“Now, the occasional grandchild is showing up,” he says.
Team-Based Treatment for Specialized Patient Care
While Dr. Lester considers himself a generalist, he enjoys a close relationship with MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s otolaryngologists who have specialty expertise in various head and neck conditions.
“If our initial diagnosis indicates they need additional help, we can refer the patient to a sub-specialist, who will prescribe the treatment, then we handle the follow-up,” he says. “It’s a really good system.”
Variety may be the “spice” of otolaryngology, but Dr. Lester has noticed some trends in his cases, including a rise in sudden sensory hearing loss (SSHL), an urgent, yet sometimes difficult-to-diagnose condition that typically affects only a few thousand people a year.
“In the last four months, I’ve treated 15 to 20 SSHL patients—as many as we used to see during an entire year,” he says.
The need to quickly address SSHL is not lost on Dr. Lester, who has experienced the condition a few times himself. When other issues began accompanying his hearing difficulties, however, he suspected the presence of an acoustic neuroma—a slow-growing, noncancerous tumor that develops on the main nerve of the inner ear. The condition was verified by a colleague, and successfully treated with surgery.
“I’m probably the only ENT who diagnosed his own acoustic neuroma,” Dr. Lester says. “Experiencing things from the patient’s perspective was interesting.”
Outside the Hospital
It should come as no surprise that someone so closely associated with hearing as a professional would also be a musician. In addition to occasionally playing bass with a friend’s band (“mainly alternative rock,” he says; “loud and obnoxious.”), Dr. Lester builds custom guitars on a semi-professional, word-of-mouth basis. He’s crafted instruments for several area musicians, including legendary “power-pop” guitarist and Bethesda native Tommy Keene.
Never harboring any illusions about his own musical talent, Dr. Lester finds plenty of satisfaction in a field that he once misunderstood, but has since come to love.
“Each week, I can point to something where what I did made a difference—where I did something important for a patient,” he says.