By Audra Renyi
My model in all I do is my father. He is my hero and always will be. He has gone through so much, and never a complaint, he just carries on. I always have my father’s advice to support me in whatever I do. He is very calm and analytical and looks at things from every angle.
Ever since I was little, I knew he had trouble hearing. He grew up in Romania and when he was 9 years old, an ear infection impaired the auditory nerve in both his ears. He wears a hearing aid in his left ear, but needs one in each.
In 1967, my father was working in the engineering department of Volkswagen in Brazil. They were test-driving cars in the state of Mato Grosso. During a night hunt on the Jauru River, a local in my father’s dugout canoe fired his gun right next to my father’s head. For two days afterward, my father could not hear a thing. This only worsened his hearing, of course.
Eventually I will have to persuade him to wear a second hearing aid to improve his stereo perception. Since I dedicated my career to hearing loss five years ago, I started noticing things about my father that I had taken for granted. For instance, he does not hear me as well when the light in a room is dim; I came to realize how much my father lip-reads and how important it is to look at him when I speak.
When he turned 50, he was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease and had to undergo dialysis in a hospital four times a week. He did receive a kidney transplant but the kidney died after a few years, so he is back on dialysis. Not to worry, it did not manage to slow him down. But I get angry sometimes when nurses at the hospital mumble or do not speak clearly to him. Hospital staff should be trained to communicate clearly with an ever-growing number of older patients with hearing loss. Patients can miss critical information from their health providers, just because they can’t hear.
My brother Aras has also become hard of hearing. He’s an explosives specialist with the Canadian Army who fought in the infantry in Afghanistan. At 32, he will soon need hearing aids to help offset the effect of all those explosions. But there’s no problem hearing him, he’s got the voice of a drill sergeant!
One of the things I learned working with hearing loss around the world is that this invisible disability affects not just the individual but the family as a whole. Not having hearing aids when you need them will cut you off from school and a decent job but it will also affect your parents, siblings, and children.
So it is not a coincidence that when the time comes to buy a hearing aid, the initiative often does not come from the person affected but rather from her parents, his children, or the spouse. They take the person by the hand and drag her/him to the audiology test. People are reluctant to acknowledge that they need a hearing aid, much more so than when they need eyeglasses. And yet, once they are wearing the hearing aid, people just grin with the pleasure of hearing again, and are grateful for having been pushed into wearing it.
One day in Jordan, where our team was working to screen children and provide them with hearing aids, we had just fitted a little boy with his first hearing aid when his father walked in the door and called his name; the boy looked up, saw his father, and burst into tears: He had never heard his father’s voice before. Put simply, that is what motivates me to carry on.
Audra Renyi is the executive director of the Montreal-based World Wide Hearing Foundation International, which provides access to affordable hearing aids and services to children and youth in developing countries. A former investment banker who then worked in Kenya, Rwanda, and Chad for organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, Renyi is also launching her own social enterprise, Hearing Access World, to sell low-cost, high-quality hearing aids.