Audiologists always seek the best technical and rehabilitative assistance for people with hearing loss. One tool considered less often is lower tech and has four legs. Service dogs can greatly improve quality of life and increase safety for people with hearing loss.
Christina Kielich was 26 years old when she experienced a sudden hearing loss. The diagnosis was an incurable inner ear hearing loss. "I lost almost all the hearing in my right ear, but my left ear was basically good," she said. She continued in a career in public affairs.
Six years ago, Kielich's hearing worsened. She was working with the director of the Audiology Center at George Washington University (GW) Hospital, Pam Mason, now ASHA's director of the Audiology Practice Unit, who referred her to David Schessel, a neuro-otologist at GW. Schessel diagnosed Kielich's condition as steroid-responsive sudden onset hearing loss. Due to its autoimmune aspects, he referred her to a rheumatologist, James Katz.
"I still work with both doctors and the audiologists at GW to monitor and treat my hearing loss," Kielich said. She is taking an anti-arthritis drug that has stopped the progression of the hearing loss and even repaired it a little. She must have blood tests every two months to monitor the medication's effect. Just one-half of 1% of all people in the country with hearing loss have this particular syndrome, she said.
"I'm like this walking experiment. I keep telling these doctors, 'If you cure me, you can write me up and you can be famous,'" she joked.
Word recognition in her right ear is now 30% and close to 70% in her left ear. Kielich has continued work as a career press officer for the Department of Energy in Washington, DC. She wears hearing aids and uses a special telephone to read texts of conversations. But there were some difficulties that technology couldn't solve. She couldn't tell when someone knocked at the door or called her name from down the hall. She might not notice if she accidentally dropped a pen or her lipstick. She wouldn't know if the phone was ringing in another room at home. That changed after a dog named Pats came into her life.
Pats is a border collie mix whom Kielich found through Paws With A Cause® (PAWS). This group trains assistance dogs nationally for people with disabilities and provides lifetime team support. Kielich chose PAWS because they train each dog individually for the needs of its recipient.
A television program in the early '90s that featured a hearing service dog sparked Kielich's interest. She did research and wrote to hearing dog programs nationwide before settling on PAWS. It took more than a year to find the combination of the right dog and a home trainer. PAWS trains all its dogs in Michigan and then a local PAWS trainer helps dog and recipient adjust to the individual's home situation. Kielich's sister, Paula, an accomplished dog handler, finally qualified as an East Coast PAWS trainer.
Pats, who is named for the New England Patriots in Boston, her city of origin, has been with Kielich since October 1995, after undergoing two months of four-times-a-day training for both hearing alerts and obedience. She now goes everywhere with her owner, alerting Kielich to colleagues who are calling her name or to fire drills at work. Pats even has her own identification card stating her position and rights as a service dog.
"Most dogs heel on the left, but that's the side of my good ear, so Pats heels on the right. That way I can walk as closely as possible to people next to my good ear," Kielich said, adding that Pats provides a sense of security. "I can relax and know I'm not missing anything. It's like having Lassie." Kielich demonstrated by dropping a paper, which Pats promptly retrieved. "She takes me to the teakettle when it's boiling or tells me when a timer goes off. She pokes my knee and tells me if someone is at the door, and wakes me up when the alarm clock rings." Pats also understands American Sign Language, so Kielich can "talk" to her during an office meeting.
Pats is a favorite at Kielich's office, where the entire staff contributed to the $5,000 cost of the service dog through the United Way. The sponsorship cost has risen since then to $18,000. Kielich cautions that there are no national standards for training service dogs, and she recommends that anyone considering getting one seek out a reputable training organization such as PAWS. The organization operates with an endowment and will provide another service dog free of charge when the time comes. "Once you qualify for a dog, you have one for the rest of your life," she said.
Pats is only a healthy 11 years old though, so Kielich doesn't have to worry about losing her furry friend for a while. Meanwhile, a trainer visits every 18 months with a checklist and videotaped exam to ensure that Pats' work stays up to the standards of all PAWS service dogs. The group trains all types of dogs except German shepherds, which tend to suffer from hip dysplasia. Dogs must be healthy, between a year or a year-and-a-half old, and be good with children so that an owner can be in almost any situation. Dogs must also have an aptitude for hearing assistance.
"I am so fortunate to have found a hearing dog through Paws With A Cause, such a caring organization," Kielich said. "Because of Pats I truly have regained my hearing, in a way, and I have my best friend always by my side."