‘I failed the hearing test. Not once, not twice, but FOUR different times.’: Deaf woman becomes audiologist at childhood clinic

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“Imagine living in a world where you did not hear the hustle and bustle of this noisy world that we live in. Imagine not being able to hear the voices of your mother or father during the first several years of your life. To not be able to hear your family say ‘I love you’ or hear their voices singing sweet lullabies. That was a reality for me.  I was born profoundly deaf.

At the time that I was born, newborn hearing screenings were not implemented in hospitals, therefore my parents did not learn of my hearing loss until the day that I was discharged. At the time of discharge, I was sitting in the hallway waiting for my parents to fill out discharge paperwork. A group of graduate students of audiology, from the graduate school that I currently attend, were learning how to do automated brainstem response hearing tests on newborns. The clinical professor randomly selected me out of the newborns in the hallway to use as an example thinking it would be quick and easy. Turns out I failed the hearing test, not once, not twice, but four different times as each student took their turn to experience how hearing loss is reflected in an automated brainstem response.

My parents were notified that I had failed this hearing test and were referred over to the University of Tennessee Hearing and Speech Center for further testing to determine the severity of my hearing loss. At the time, and up until very recently, this audiology clinic was located within Neyland Stadium! Further diagnostic testing that was done at this follow-up appointment revealed that I had a severe to profound sensorineural hearing loss. Initially, receiving this diagnosis was a shock to my parents, however, they were quick to jump into support mode by enrolling me into speech therapy via early intervention to get the ball rolling on how I can learn to hear and speak.

Prior to getting cochlear implants, I had a set of hearing aids to start out with. Initially, the goal was to see if I would receive any benefit from hearing aids. At first, I did receive benefit and started making little progress in speech therapy but progress had halted after three months. Testing was repeated by the audiologists to find out that any residual hearing that I had had at birth had dropped to profound and hearing aids were no longer benefiting me. With progress halting, the question of what is next arose for my parents.  The next step was a cochlear implant. This incredible device was relatively new, and had only been out for roughly 10 years. With it being so new, there were only two Ear Nose and Throat surgeons in town that would perform this surgery, and very little research to show what implant company provided the most benefit with personal accounts.

Ultimately, my parents made the decision to pursue cochlear implantation of a Cochlear Americas implant. I was implanted with my first implant on my right side when I was 2.5 years old. I do not remember much from this surgery or the process following surgery, but I do recall having a very large bandage wrapped around my head while staying overnight in the hospital post surgery. Post surgery I continued to attend speech therapy within Neyland Stadium at the Child Hearing Services where I learned how to listen with my implant and made significant progress and ‘graduated’ speech therapy when was 5 years old.  I always like to make a point the you never really graduate speech therapy. Every new situation that you are in is a new opportunity that you have to learn how to listen in!

little girl smiling
Courtesy of Lauren Harris

Fast forward to kindergarten, my parents mainstreamed me in public school but hit a roadblock within the educational system. The public education system required that I take a vocabulary test to ensure that I ‘cognitively’ lined up with my peers. With the results of the test I actually tested into the first grade, however, my parents made the decision to keep me with peers that were the same age. Throughout my academic career I encountered many highs and lows of gaining academic awards and encountering teachers that felt the need to confine me into the stereotype that the world has placed on individuals with hearing loss. But with these ups and downs I have been able to navigate hardships with grace. Not only was I involved with my academics, I was very much a sports girl. You name it, I did it. With every season I was either on the field, the court, or in the ring. Whether it was soccer, dance, horseback riding, basketball, or track, I never let my hearing loss be a barrier to my athletic career. That is not to say that I didn’t encounter some hardships with my implant. On several occasions I would fry through implants at soccer camps from either sweat or getting caught in a rainstorm.  The frying of processors was almost a weekly, if not daily occurrence and believe me, my audiologists and Cochlear Americas knew me personally!

young girl with a horse
Courtesy of Lauren Harris

It was not until I was 14 that I received my second implant. Making me the now bilateral cochlear implant user that I am today. To my parents dismay, I was completely stubborn and did not want the second implant. My stubbornness kept me from wearing the implant for several years because I absolutely hated change. And still do. Once I know something works along with feeling comfortable with it, I never want to change it. For example, the programming of my implants is about as simple as you can get. I have absolutely no bells and whistles on it. Not to say the bells and whistles are bad, which they are absolutely not at all, but I like to say if it ain’t broke don’t fix it! I was also about to be a freshman in high school which seemed so daunting at the time.

Believe it or not, while I was determined to not let my hearing loss define me, I was also very insecure about my implants. I was insecure that people would see them and instantly place me into this box where I didn’t belong or place this expectation on me that should never be placed on anyone. In my head, at least back when I was 14, I would think to myself that it would be easier to hide just one implant rather than two. It seems silly to think that way but I did. I continued to think this way about my hearing loss until college. It was not until college that I truly started wearing my second implant. There was a moment that I realized how much I was missing with only having one implant on. In college I was a Younglife leader at a high school in Knox County and one of my high school girls was sitting on my left side and I did not hear one of her questions. She thought I was ignoring her, and that broke my heart because that was never my intention.  That very moment I made a promise to myself that I would wear my left implant no matter how much I hated it so that moments like that wouldn’t happen again.

teenaged girl smiling
Courtesy of Lauren Harris

It was hard at first, to work through my stubbornness but throughout that process I taught myself tricks to put the implant on before my old one. You might ask yourself why in the world would you do that? My thought process is that if I put the one I favor on first, I know I can function with it by itself but if I only put the left one on, I have to put the right one on to go on with my day. Then with having both on, the left side is able to acclimate to having the device on! It is a trick that I share with my patients all the time!

Remember the Audiology Clinic that I was telling you about within Neyland stadium that changed my life forever? Well, I am currently pursuing my Doctorate of Audiology here at The University of Health Science Center and I have come full circle. That same audiology clinic that welcomed me with open arms when I was as young as I could be is now where I am learning how to be a clinical audiologist so that I can make an impact on families that feel overwhelmed. It really holds a special place in my heart that I have been chosen and lead to this field and am able to connect with patients and families in ways that others may not be able to.

girl at audiology clinic in graduation cords
Courtesy of Lauren Harris

However, Audiology was not what I was interested in initially.  Growing up, I had almost everybody tell me ‘you would make a great audiologist’ and like I said, I was stubborn. I didn’t want to do what everybody else was telling me.  It had to be my decision at my own time so I pursued Neuroscience with the hopes of becoming a Physicians Assistant. It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I took a step back and wrestled with what I truly wanted to do with my life. I am a servant heart; it is my nature to want to serve and help people. Serving people whom have a need is what brings my heart joy. And that is when I had an epiphany that Audiology would allow me to do that very thing, serve those that have a need. So I switched my major from Neuroscience to a double major in Audiology and Speech Pathology and have not looked back since! I have just recently received my Masters of Science of Audiology and am that much closer to obtaining my clinical Doctorate of Audiology!

While changing my major I applied to get a hearing service dog from Canine Companions for Independence. Initially, I wanted to go away from Knoxville for graduate school and live alone. I had bad experiences with roommates and felt it was better if I did not have any, however, when I take my implants off it can cause some problems. Problems meaning that I can’t hear anything when I take them off, therefore, if I am asleep and the smoke alarm goes off I will not hear it.  I wanted to be able to be independent and feel safe on my own. Once I heard about Canine Companions for Independence I jumped straight in! I completed the detailed application process and was placed on a waitlist to receive a dog. It was not until May of my senior year that I got an email that I would be attending Team Training to receive my dog shortly after I graduated with my undergraduate degree. Team Training was the experience of a lifetime and sometimes I wish I could go back and do it all over again exactly the way that it was! I graduated with Elroy in May of 2019 and he has changed my life in so many ways. He has helped me overcome so many little obstacles that those of us with hearing loss tackle everyday. Many obstacles that I, and others with hearing loss, face are waking up to alarms in the morning, simple sounds like timers, localizing sounds, sirens, and even hearing our name being called can prove to be more difficult than anticipated. My service dog allows for me to feel comfortable without my implants on at home and even more confident out in public with my cochlear implants on. He alerts me to sounds that I either cannot hear or have difficulty hearing such as door knocking, keys dropping, emergency sirens, smoke alarms, timers, doorbells, my name being called, and much more! For example, I have trouble hearing some feedback on hearing aids. He will alert me to the feedback along with showing me where it is coming from. Not only does he help me in the clinic, he helps even when he is not physically alerting me by localizing sounds that occur in the environment around me. Essentially, he is my extra set of ears and partner in crime to make sure that I am able to have full access to my surroundings wherever I go!

girl with her service dog
Courtesy of Lauren Harris

Not only with pursuing my Doctorate of Audiology, I have felt lead to share with others how learn to love their hearing loss. To learn and know that their hearing loss does not define them and that Deaf is Beautiful. I created my miniblog Hearing Lauren on Instagram and a Youtube channel to reach individuals and families with hearing loss. I feel very passionate about creating a resource for families and individuals to be able to have access to regarding what it is is like to live with cochlear implants and hearing loss. To talk about the good and the bad about living with hearing loss. To bring a light to situations that almost everybody with hearing loss experiences because often we feel alone in what we are going through. At least I did growing up. I never had a place where I could go and connect with somebody else that had hearing loss and have them say ‘hey, I know what you are going through. I experience this too and this is how I deal with it.’ It has been placed on my heart share the mountains that I have climbed blindly so that others have a map to navigating the daunting inclines. I live by my motto of ‘Deaf is Beautiful and there is nothing that will ever limit you!’ Because I used to let my hearing loss limit and define me but as I began to learn to love my hearing loss and look at it as a gift I blossomed. And you can too.”

girl in graduation cap with confetti
Courtesy of Lauren Harris
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