Talking on the phone may seem like something that’s to be taken for granted, but for me, this conversation—and every conversation with Jeff—is quite special. That’s because Jeff was born hearing impaired.
My first wife, Lisa, and I were pretty experienced parents, having had three children before Jeff was born. With each one, we’d count fingers and toes and hope that we had a healthy baby. When Jeff was born, we went through the same ritual and, sure enough, he had the requisite ten fingers and ten toes and all the rest of the standard equipment, all in the right places.
Unlike his brother, Danny, who was a colicky baby, Jeff was generally calm and happy and started sleeping though the night very early on. On a side note, we discovered that the two best remedies for colic are 1) a ride in the car, and 2) running the vacuum cleaner. I used to keep the vacuum cleaner in the hall outside Dan’s bedroom at night with the power cord strung into our bedroom. After one of us would make sure that he wasn’t wet or hungry or otherwise in distress, I would reach over and plug in the cord. Five minutes later, I’d pull the plug and hear nothing but the sounds of a sleeping baby. Our neighbors must have wondered about our unusual house cleaning schedule.
It was this parenting experience that caused Lisa to suspect that something wasn’t right about Jeff when he was only a month old. There was a difference in the way he reacted to her. The look on his face when she cooed at him and spoke babytalk just wasn’t what she was used to. She tried clanging a pot behind him and he didn’t flinch.
That was enough for her to know that he wasn’t hearing her. Lisa made an appointment with Jeff’s pediatrician, who arranged to perform a tympanogram. This is a test that measures the resonance of an eardrum and can detect the presence of conductive problems, which generally relate to fluid behind the eardrum, scarring of the eardrum, or malformed conduction bones.
The test did not reveal any unusual pressure or fluid behind Jeff’s eardrums. We would have been relieved if it had. These problems are routinely treated and generally result in no long lasting problems. Instead, we were referred to the Callier Center at the University of Texas at Dallas (http://www.callier.utdallas.edu/).
Jeff was tested on May 4, 1989 at the Callier Center, when he was only five weeks old. His hearing loss was determined to be bilateral (both ears) moderate to severe peripheral auditory impairment. (Click here to see the test results.) The audiologist told us that his hearing loss was on the order of 70 decibels. She characterized his threshold of hearing, which most of us experience as the soft breathing of someone in a quiet room with us, being the equivalent of standing close to a passing train.
With this extent of hearing loss, she told us that, even with hearing aids, he would not be able to distinguish subtleties in sounds. Speech therapy would be necessary and she warned that we should not expect his speech to ever be “normal.”
The next step was to fashion a set of hearing aids for Jeff. He was the youngest hearing aid patient ever treated at the Callier Center. Most parents, certainly first-time parents, would never have recognized the symptoms of hearing loss at such an early age.
Now we have to turn the clock back to Christmas, 1988. Lisa was pregnant with Jeff and we spent part of the day with her grandparents, Estill and Becky. Grandma Becky was not feeling well but was an expert at hiding it. We all knew she was scheduled to have heart surgery and that reality loomed over the festivities.
A short time later, Grandma Becky went through her surgery and there were complications. She remained in the hospital for a lengthy stay, all of us on pins and needles as she went through the peaks and troughs of recovery. Her prognosis, unfortunately, turned from hopeful to unpromising. I don’t recall if she was in the hospital on Jeff’s birthday, March 28th, but I do remember that she was hospitalized at the time we got the news about Jeff’s deafness.
In June, 1989, Lisa and her parents got permission to bring baby Jeff into the ICU to see Grandma Becky. I waited in the lobby with the rest of the family. When they emerged from the elevator a half hour later, Lisa told me that Grandma Becky was awake and happy to see Jeff. She had been previously made aware of his deafness, his trips to the Callier Center, and his prognosis.
She was also aware of her own prognosis and knew she wasn’t going to return to her home in Dallas. But she was pragmatic about that reality and was also deeply religious. She announced, in front of Lisa and Lisa’s parents, that when she went to heaven, she would have a talk with God about Jeff’s hearing loss.
Grandma Becky died on June 30, 1989.
Several weeks later, Lisa recovered little Jeffy from his crib, changed and fed him, and popped open the box that contained the tiniest little hearing aids you’ve ever seen. This had become a daily ritual, but this time Jeff protested when she inserted his hearing aids. Thinking that he might just be crotchety for some other reason, she didn’t think too much about his reaction.
Later in the day, she once again tried to insert the hearing aids. Jeff would have nothing to do with it, this time protesting even louder. That’s when it occurred to Lisa that something must be going on. She returned to her pots and pans experiment and Jeff not only reacted, but was startled and cried. “What the heck are you doing surprising me like that, Mom?” If only he could talk...
When the specialists at Callier Center reran the tests on Jeff, they found his hearing to be at 90% of normal. Checking back through the original test results and diagnosis, there was nothing that indicated a problem with either. There was simply no explanation, from a biological point of view, for his miraculous recovery.
We, of course, know that there is an explanation.
Thank you, Grandma Becky.
Jeff, on the right, with me and his colicky older brother, Danny.