Earlier this year, I received a phone call from a friend. It had been a long day and I was exhausted, completely unprepared for the words that would come next.
Me? An inspirational deaf person? My friend’s voice was shrill with excitement. She had nominated me for a national award – Oticon’s 2005 Focus on People Competition – and I had won. Inspirational Deaf Person of the Year.
I began to cry. I suppose they were tears of both joy and sorrow. Only 4 ½ short years ago, I would not have been able to hear the wonderful news.
I was born hearing, but began experiencing progressive hearing loss during childhood. It went completely undetected until I was almost 20 years old. Because it happened so slowly, I must have naturally compensated. I didn’t realize how bad my hearing had become.
In college, I began to struggle. In a lecture hall with 450 other students, it became impossible for me to hear my professor. Papers shuffling, people talking around me… it was a challenge. I soon realized that if I wanted to continue my education, I would have to seek help. Doctors at Shea Clinic in Tennessee prescribed my first set of hearing aids. Everything was fine for a while.
It was during adulthood and amidst a difficult pregnancy that deafness set in rapidly. Within just a few months, I could no longer hear or communicate with anyone in my life. I could no longer hear music, talk to my parents or friends on the phone, or hear my husband tell me he loved me.
Ultimately, my pregnancy required 24 weeks of bed rest and 9 hospital stays. I imagine much of the pregnancy-related distress was due to the emotional impact of going deaf. Our daughter, Ellie, was born two months premature and spent the first two weeks of her life in the special care nursery.
It was a hard time in our lives. We were first-time parents and were quickly learning that Baby Ellie didn’t come with a manual. Upon our arrival home, I remember holding Ellie and crying because I couldn’t hear her coo’s of contentment or her cries of hunger. I didn’t know at the time that she couldn’t hear me either.
Ellie had been born profoundly deaf, but we didn’t officially find out until she was 9 months old. That was after nearly 50 visits to doctors all over the United States. My maternal instincts had told me that something was wrong from the very beginning, but no one has ever been able to tell us why I lost my hearing or why our daughter was born deaf. We have no hearing loss in our family.
Like any new mother, I worried, but my concerns were magnified by all the questions I had running through my head about my baby’s deafness. Would Ellie ever make friends? Would she be able to talk? Would she hear us tell her that we loved her? Would she ever learn to say the ABC’s or sing The Hokey Pokey? Because I had grown up hearing, I worried that Ellie would miss out on many of life’s opportunities.
When Ellie turned a year old, we found out she was a candidate for the Cochlear implant. She was implanted at 17 months old – one of the youngest children to be implanted at the time. The implant was a complete success but it has been a long, tiring road that has required years of speech and hearing therapy.
A month after Ellie was implanted, our second daughter Lucy was born. She is our little spitfire, with perfect hearing.
The next year, I received the cochlear implant, too. My hearing is not restored 100%, but the difference is amazing and I feel blessed.
The impact that the cochlear implant has had for my family cannot be conveyed in words. Doors have been opened for Ellie and me, as well as for millions of other hearing impaired individuals in this world.