By Barbara M.
I always knew I wanted to work with people after high school. Though I struggled throughout my education, I graduated, miraculously, thanks to my supportive family and hearing aid technology. With a high school degree I was eligible for Vocational Nurses (VN) school, a career I maintained for over 23 years.
My sensorineural hearing loss was diagnosed at around age 4, well before newborn hearing screenings were commonplace, in 1954. “Barbie needs to see your face when you talk, Mommy,” my sister announced one day, cluing my parents into a possible hearing problem.
I wore behind-the-ear hearing aids and equally relied upon speech-reading, but academics were a constant challenge. Math was the most difficult for me because my teachers often faced the chalkboards, not us students, while writing and explaining equations. My family spent many hours tutoring math to me to ensure I passed.
After high school, I was employed as a nurse’s aide in a long-term care facility. I enjoyed working with and helping the elderly patients, which encouraged me to apply to VN training school. I entered with strong professional references and my two instructors were aware of my hearing loss, so I felt secure.
During the last week of the six-week academic training, which immediately precedes clinical duty training, one of the VN instructors requested a private meeting. She had concerns about my hearing loss. “What if you’re in a situation where you could not hear a patient call/cry out?” she pressed.
Devastated, I reasoned with her hoping she would allow me to begin clinical duty on a trial basis to prove my ability to meet their expectations. I suggested this even though I knew in my heart it would personally difficult to withstand 17 additional months of required training under her surveillance. She pushed back, expressing I could be jeopardizing a patient's life or she could lose her job. I was crushed! I ultimately chose to withdraw from this VN school, knowing I’d be accepted to another school. I was—and graduated to go on to pass the California State Board for licensure.
Some time after my licensure, I was driving past my first VN school and a thought occurred to me; I needed to share my good news with my once doubtful instructor. The instructor with whom I spoke remembered me and congratulated me on my achievement. We chatted amicably before she revealed that the 'other' instructor had since resigned—due to hearing loss she experienced the year after I withdrew from the VN program. I was in disbelief! I hoped she, too, had not faced discrimination. Empathetically, I expressed my concern that no one should be discriminated against because of their disability.
About halfway into my nursing career, in the 1980s, I found myself with the need to to hear more and relied more on speech-reading. I often felt tired and mentally overloaded in noisy environments. One of my biggest challenges during this time was caring for my son, born in 1987. My husband, a firefighter who often worked 48-to-72-hour shifts away from home, cleverly devised a sound-activated light system to alert me when our son made noise or cried in his crib. This was a perfect solution, I thought—except in the case of power outages.
I needed to find another way to alert me to my son's voice at night. It came to me the following year while reading National Geographic, where I saw an advertisement about Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a nonprofit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities by providing them with service dogs and ongoing support. I applied and was paired up with Ronnie, my first Hearing Dog (HD), who helped me immensely by alerting me to important sounds within my home.
Gradually and for unknown reasons my hearing loss continued to decline and I found myself avoiding noisy establishments & places. In 1999 I made the decision to resign from employment so as to ensure quality patient care I no longer was able to auscultate (hear) important lung sounds using the stethoscope. With my skills as a nurse, I chose to transition to be a care provider for my aging parents-in-law, and later, my mother.
I am grateful I was able to remain productive after my resignation, largely because of the help of Ronnie and, later, his successor, Fallon, a Golden Retriever/Labrador mix. Fallon, who passed away in 2014, alerted me to ringing doorbells, whistling tea kettles, and ringing telephones. Though I’m no longer helping people, I’m so happy that Fallon was able to help me.
Ronnie and Fallon helped me to overcome my hidden handicap, a personal milestone towards acceptance of my hearing loss.
Barbara lives in Oregon with her husband, Dan.