Hearing the Call for Help

For Rachel Clayton, the Midwest has always been home. The audiologist has been with the Constance Brown Hearing Center, (CBHC), in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for the length of her professional career. A Michigan native, Rachel went to college in her home state, attended Indiana University for her Masters, followed by a CFY, (clinical fellowship year), at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

"I am one of the few audiologists I know that was certain from a young age that this was the career I wanted," she says. Rachel's mother experienced hearing loss, and was very active in the Hearing Loss Association of America (formerly SHHH, Self-Help for Hard of Hearing People).

"My mother had an amazing audiologist, who taught me about the profession and encouraged me," Rachel remembers. "The most gratifying thing about this career is that I know I am improving lives-patients often tell me how much they appreciate what I have done for them. Some of them even send me letters and notes, which is so touching."

" I consider audiology a helping profession-it just has intrinsic rewards for those who practice it," she says. "The frustration comes in knowing that we can help those with hearing loss, but we cannot cure them. We can't take the problem away."

Making A Difference

"When you have a good audiologist, it's amazing what a difference it can make in your life."

One of Rachel's patients is Bob Ramsdell, a retired chemical manufacturer. When Bob experienced bi-lateral hearing loss twenty years ago, his whole world changed. Bob had spent a long career at the pharmaceutical company Upjohn (now Pfizer) in Kalamazoo. But his hearing loss forced him to start all over at a new job in a different division in the company.

"Hearing aids were not as good as they are now," he remembers, "It was tough. I was transferred to the computer division because my hearing loss prevented me from working on the manufacturing floor. I had to learn everything from the ground up."

Socially, it was also difficult for Bob to adjust. "Suddenly, you are perceived differently, and it is hard to meet new people. Most shy away from those with a disability, which can be hurtful," he says.

Bob sought help from the Constance Brown Hearing Center, (CBHC), a not-for-profit agency offering comprehensive hearing services, which includes diagnostic testing, prescriptions for hearing aids and specialized programs.

Building the Clinician-Patient Relationship

Rachel has been Bob's audiologist for the last nine years, and she has seen him through several sets of hearing aids. "Bob is a very active user," says Rachel, "and between his working conditions and the weather here in Michigan, he's had a number of problems with his hearing aids that are related to moisture and humidity."

"Rachel is excellent," says Bob. "She works incredibly well with us, and consistently goes that extra mile to make sure we are well cared for." For example, he explains, when his hearing aids stopped functioning, Rachel provided him with a set of loaners and took over the onerous process of making sure the repairs were done correctly.

"The manufacturer could not find the problem, and sent the hearing aids back," he recalls. "Rachel wouldn't accept that response. She stood up for us, sent the hearing aids back to the manufacturer multiple times, until they finally discovered and fixed the problem."

According to Rachel, "The process took several months, and Bob and his wife Jo were incredibly patient, and kept their frustration in check. It's tough because you're relying on a lab for a solution, and you're just an agent. I kept him in loaner hearing aids, but really he was just getting by in those."

"It makes such an enormous difference to have the right kind of care and quality hearing aids," he reflects. "You don't even realize the sounds you were missing. Suddenly you can hear the birds, not just traffic noises. You can follow conversations and communicate. When you have a good audiologist, it's amazing what a difference it can make in your life."

Hearing Help: Out of Reach for Many

According to Bob Ramsdell, the average pair of bi-lateral hearing aids costs him around $1,400. Insurance pays for only a portion of that expense. "I have really good health insurance," he explains, "but it covers only about $500 of the cost of my hearing aids. Combined with the testing and all the other things required, it can really get expensive for a lot of people. I am lucky to be able to get what I need."

His wife Jo agrees. "The technology is so good nowadays," she says, "everything you need is out there to help those with hearing disabilities. But it's just unaffordable for many."

This includes many of the people currently getting service from CBHC, who the Ramsdells would see on a regular basis when they came in for appointments.

"As a non-profit, we serve many low-income families that need financial assistance to cover the cost of treating their hearing impairment," says Kim Loftus, Director of Development and Communications. Because of the depressed economy in her state, she believes the need in Michigan is especially acute.

"We are experiencing a single-state recession here," she explains. "With the troubles in the auto and manufacturing industries, we have the third-highest unemployment in the country, and the state has cut back on hearing assistance programs. So the demand is growing."

Michigan is also one of the few states in which newborn hearing screenings are not required by law, so patients, hoping to save money, waive the testing at the hospital and have it done at CBHC instead. "So we get lots of newborn babies here," says Kim, "both the ones that have never had the screening and those who require more comprehensive testing and care." Of the 8,600 patients CBHC serves each year, more than 4,000 are children and infants.

The Ramsdells: Doing Their Part

Bob and Jo understand first-hand the difficulties and challenges of hearing loss, and have seen at CBHC how dramatically it can affect lives, especially those of children.

"If children can't hear, they lose a lot of their ability to understand and their ability to learn anything in school," he says. "That can also lead to low self-esteem. Other people no longer understand their value as human beings, and all that they can contribute. According to Bob, It doesn't need to be that way. If they get everything they need, they can build self-confidence, which will help them a great deal. Wearing hearing aids can become very natural to them, just like wearing a hat, with no need to feel self-conscious or different from others."

At the hearing center, the couple would often speak to families in the waiting room who were struggling to afford services and devices for their children. They made it a priority to help these children, and worked with Rachel Clayton and then Kim Loftus to figure out a way to ease that financial strain.

The Ramsdells made a generous donation to the center, which became the seed money for the CBHC Children's Hearing Services Assistance Fund. The Fund covers hearing aids and hearing tests for needy families.

Raising Awareness, Helping Others

To raise awareness about the need to assist low-income families, CBHC enlisted Rachel and others at the center to help. They began a more visual fundraising campaign around the offices and waiting areas, displaying posters and placing scrapbooks featuring pictures of children receiving their hearing aids in the waiting rooms.

The Ramdells needed little convincing. Since that initial generosity, they have doubled their gift to CBHC by taking advantage of Bob's former employer's giving program, which matches the money donated by their employees. According to Kim Loftus, the Ramsdell's gift continues to pay the couple's generosity forward, inspiring other foundation to make their own contributions to the Children's assistance fund.

The couple could not be more pleased with how things have worked out. "This is so important to us, to be able to help," says Jo. "It is really special. We have gotten some updates and thank you notes from the children we have helped. One even drew a picture for us-a happy little girl with brown hair tied in a ponytail, smiling as she stands in front of her house."

For her part, Rachel is grateful she gets to treat patients like Bob Ramsdell. "When I see his name on my appointment schedule I just light up," she says. "They are both so upbeat, always so happy to see me."

"Some people let their hearing disability govern their life, or they cut themselves off from society. The Ramdsells are not like that. They don't let the problem rule their life-they just deal with it, and use their experience to help others."

ASHA Corporate Partners