05 Aug Debbie Entsminger
Debbie is a bilateral Cochlear Nucleus 7 recipient. Is also an amazing person. Her hearing loss was gradual so she does not know when it began but it was diagnosed when she was in college.
At the time it was a 10% loss. An annoying inconvenience. Next time she was tested it was 20%. With each successive test, her hearing loss grew and grew until it was 80% or more.
Now it was a severe handicap. Debbie persevered and continued her career albeit at a difficult and exhausting pace.
Eventually she considered getting a cochlear implant but she had a major complication, a condition known as Bing Siebenmann Dysplasia which lessened her chance of a successful activation.
Again, with her deep faith, she moved forward to achieve remarkable results and later decided for a second surgery to become bilateral. She now has 95% speech comprehension.
Voiceover: Cochlear Implant Basics is a site for candidates, recipients, and their families and friends. If you or a loved one is profoundly hard of hearing, newly deaf, or have experienced sudden hearing loss, we are here to share our stories and tell how receiving a cochlear implant can be a life-changing event. This site is not medical advice, nor is it brand-specific.
Voiceover: Within these podcasts and videos, you will meet recipients who faced hearing loss situations, and hearing aids can no longer provide comprehension of speech or music. They share the stories of how they lost their hearing, their struggles with growing isolation from their family and friends, their inability to compete in the world of business, their difficulties of navigating air travel without hearing, how the joy of music disappeared, and the panic of not being able to use a telephone to contact 911 to get aid for a loved one.
Voiceover: They will talk about their fears and the reason they procrastinated to get a cochlear implant, and the reasons they moved forward. How receiving a cochlear implant changed their lives and the lives of those who surround them. You will meet audiologists and surgeons and those who support the deaf and hard of hearing communities. Welcome to Cochlear Implant Basics. Reminder. Cochlear Implant Basics is not offering medical advice. Please consult your own healthcare provider.
Richard: My guest today is Debbie. She can only be described as optimism on steroids. Faced with a progressive hearing loss first diagnosed in college, she eventually tried hearing aids but without success. Her hearing declined to more than 80% loss, and yet she continued to find methods to compensate. Eventually, she realized investigating a cochlear implant was her only option. Having an extremely rare and complex hearing issue, but with nothing to lose, she moved ahead. Today she is a bilateral Cochlear Nucleus 7 recipient with a 95% speech comprehension and she has returned to playing a guitar after a long, empty span. This is her story.
Richard: Tell me a little bit about your hearing loss. Did you have health issues? What do you think caused your hearing loss?
Debbie: Well, I honestly didn’t know for the longest time what caused my hearing loss. I didn’t even know I had hearing loss to be honest, and I’m not sure exactly when it started. When I was in college, I took an introduction to communications disorders class, so they said for extra credit, have the grad students check your hearing. Always one for extra credit, I was like, “Okay.” So I went and had the hearing test, and while they were doing it, they realized I’d had a 10% loss. And that was the first time I ever knew anything about me having a hearing loss.
Debbie: I always knew I liked to sit in the front row, and it would bother me if they put you alphabetically so you had to sit back farther, but I didn’t really know why. But a 10% loss was not that much. There were some sounds I couldn’t hear, maybe some alarms or things, but I just didn’t think it was a big deal. They recommended that I come back again to get it periodically checked. So my senior year I went back and they discovered another 10% had gone. By that point it was a 20% loss, and that’s when it began to really impact my life.
Richard: What did you do with that? Or did you look for hearing aids?
Debbie: Well, it was interesting. When I met with the otolaryngologist, he sat me down, and he was a friend of the family’s. At that point I had wanted to go overseas and be a missionary, and he just sat me down and he said, “Deb, you are never going to be fluent in another language. In fact, as you get older, you’re going to have a hard time with English.” And I was like, “What?” So, that was the first clue I had, this is going to impact my life.
Debbie: He made the comment at the time, he said, “Deb, God hasn’t done a miracle giving you your hearing back, but he has done one in enabling you to understand by reading lips.” And I didn’t even know I was lipreading. Then I realized, “Oh, so this is one of the reasons…” I knew it bothered me if people put their hands in front of their mouths when they would talk, but I really was kind of clueless.
Richard: Of course. Okay. So you’re in college, so you must have been about 22-
Richard: … when you started realizing it. At what point did you really have to go for hearing aid? Was it 10 years later? How long, do you remember?
Debbie: Well, do you know? I didn’t go back to graduate school until I was 27. So that would have been five years later. And about halfway through, one of my mom’s friends, she said, “Deb, do you think that getting hearing aids might help?” Because by that point it seemed like every four years I was losing another 10%. So by that point I had lost 30% of my hearing, was starting to really notice as a disability. So, she said, “I’ll buy you hearing aids.”
Richard: Did you get them?
Debbie: So I got hearing aids, and of course, this is back in 1992, so hearing aids were very different back then, I’d put them on and I’d go to class, and I would hear the air conditioner, and it would just drown out the sound of the professor’s voice. So actually, at that point, hearing aids were more of a hindrance than a help. And I tried for probably about a semester, really tried to make them work, but they just were not helping me. And I found I’d do better just going with my regular plans of sitting up front so I could keep reading the professor’s lips. I actually never wore hearing aids after that point.
Richard: Okay. Now, you left college, you left graduate school-
Richard: What point did you get hearing aids?
Debbie: Believe it or not, I never got hearing aids after that point. I’d just function, continuing to adapt, with lipreading, and just pressed on all the way up until the point where I lost everything. I was still lipreading.
Richard: Well, then, describe your jobs. You had no hearing. You went to work for… It’s kind of a little bit of a handicap.
Debbie: Well [crosstalk 00:06:32] opened up a door for me. I started working with college students in 2000. My husband and I went on staff with a Christian organization working in a campus ministry. My job was meeting with students, really just helping them to get to know the Lord, and answering their questions about the big issues in life. So a lot of what I did was one-on-one.
Debbie: But it was really fascinating because I remember one point, just being so frustrated. By this point I had lost 80% of my hearing.
Richard: Oh my God.
Debbie: And we had just moved to the University of Florida. There hadn’t been a ministry there for eight years. There wasn’t anybody waiting in line. No students to meet with us. So I would always initiate with people, never knowing if I’d be able to understand them or not. That was a challenge. And it was interesting. I met this one girl and she said, “Oh, would you come lead a Bible study in my scholarship house? Because I would just love to see something take place there, I think it would just pull us all together.” And I was like, “Okay, well, see who’s interested.”
Debbie: She gives me a list of 10 girls, and I was so scared, because of course, you know, scholarship houses, it’s terrible acoustics. There’s nothing on the walls. And I remember showing up, driving up at this scholarship house that first day, and inside I was just like, “Oh, Lord, the only reason I’m going in there is because I believe you exist, but I have no idea how I’m going to do this. I am scared stiff.” And I walked in and the girls are all sitting around this table. And I sat down and I told them, I said, “Okay. I have no idea how this is going to work, because I have lost 80% of my hearing, and I don’t even know how I’m going to understand you.”
Debbie: The student sitting right next to me was studying speech pathology and ideology and she said, “I’ll tell you how it’s going to work.” And she put her arm around me and looked at the girls, and said, “Not one of you is to open your mouth without raising your hand to capture Deb’s attention, because Deb needs to know which lips to look at.” And she proceeded to not only teach them how to make it work but to teach me how to make it work. I still use a lot of the skills that she taught me that day in that study, and it was so neat, because that was one of the most special studies, I think, I’ve ever had.
Debbie: It was funny because a lot of the girls, at first, weren’t even sure if they wanted to be there. It was so neat because afterwards I felt like the Lord said to me, “Deb, do you know, if you’d gone in there confident, able to hear, “Okay, I’m here to help you guys understand the Bible,” they might never have come back. But because you went in weakness, it drew them all in and they were determined to make this work.” And it was the neatest thing seeing lives change because of my weakness.
Richard: But did you ever feel that you could no longer continue with your job because of your hearing? Or did you always have the confidence?
Debbie: It’s interesting. There is this verse in second Corinthians, 9:8, that says, “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so in all things at all times, having all you need, you will abound in every good work he has for you to do.” And I just clung to that, and I just kept crying out, “God, give me the grace. Would you help me figure out a way.” Sometimes, towards the end, I would take with me… It’s one of these kid things. I can’t even remember what it’s called. But you can write on it and then erase it.
Richard: Oh, Etch and Sketch?
Debbie: And I couldn’t even understand a word-
Richard: Etch and Sketch?
Debbie: You just got creative, you know? In learning. And people just saw it as a challenge, I guess.
Richard: It’s true that people I interview, one of the things that I like to find out about is their adaptation techniques.
Richard: So you found your adaptation technique. I did too. I mean, we’re in business, we have to do this.
Richard: So you never thought about the fact you couldn’t do the job any more. You just found your adaptation techniques.
Debbie: Yeah. I just had the strong sense that this was what God wanted me to do, and I may have to get creative. And do you know, it was so amazing, because at first I was really frustrated. Initially, right out of college, I was ready to go be a pioneer missionary, do whatever God wanted me to do, and so hearing it close that door, but then was a little bit later in life, it was about 14 years later that we went on staff with this ministry. And I was like, “God, you closed the door when I’d only lost 20% of my hearing. Now you wait till I’ve lost 80% and you have us go on campus doing this. What are you thinking?”
Debbie: And there was this guy who came in to speak at the University of Florida, and he had a doctorate in audiology, and he had a doctorate in psychology. He said as people become deaf their world tends to get smaller because of fear and pride. They’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, and there’s pride. They don’t want to ask for help. And as I sat there in that workshop, I just so sensed God was saying to me, “Deb, do you realize? I have you doing this because I love you. I do not want your world to get smaller, so I’ve put you in a place where you’ve just got to press into the heart, and you’ve got to keep trusting me and keep being creative, trying to adapt, and figure this out. And you are just in the process. You are just annihilating fear and pride. Leaning in to the challenge.” And my world definitely kept getting bigger.
Richard: I can understand that. There must have been something that moved you forward, finally, toward getting a cochlear implant.
Richard: And that’s something I’d be very interested in hearing more about.
Debbie: It is interesting, because for me the hardest part of hearing loss wasn’t not being able to hear as much as it was the brain fatigue. Because lipreading, they say, takes about seven times more effort on your brain’s part to process what you’re doing. So it was probably right around 2012, so about seven years ago, that I really started experiencing the consequences of brain fatigue. That was right about the time when I was losing almost all residual hearing, and I just started realizing I was getting exhausted. So my capacity was decreasing and my ability to interact with people, even if I’d press through for one day and spend the day meeting with student after student, the next day you could barely scrape me off of the floor.
Debbie: I was just like, “Oh my gosh,” this is something that I was just really, really struggling with. And I always expected that I was going to end my days completely deaf, do you know? Because I really thought, “That’s the way it’s going to be,” and I had just kind of embraced it, accepted that, and I thought, “Well, you know, either God’s going to have me start a ministry with people who are deaf and I’ll just interact with them, or maybe he’s going to have me start writing.” And I’d be okay with that.
Debbie: But every time I tried to move in either of those directions, God kept closing the door, and instead leading me to work that involved even more hearing as he had me get trained as a coach. First with coaching people through their strength finder assessment results, through another assessment, Emcor, then when he led me to get trained as a Paterson LifePlan facilitator, which takes 16 hours in two days with one person, and it’s like, “I’m deaf. I don’t have this capacity.” And you know, I just feel like your life is like a story and God is this master author. And as I zoomed out looking at the story, I was like, “The way God’s leading me is not into this quiet direction. It’s a direction where there’s more hearing. So I’ve got to figure out what can I do?” It’s like, “How do you adapt?”
Debbie: That was when I had heard about cochlear implant, and that was about the time when I thought, “I wonder if God might want me to pursue these cochlear implants?”
Richard: Do you remember hearing about cochlear implants? Where you first heard about them and how you felt about them when you heard about them?
Debbie: Here’s the deal. When I first had heard about them, oh, goodness, easy 10-plus years prior to actually getting them, what happened was is they told me, with my hearing loss, and because it had been so long, they said, “We can’t guarantee that you’ll regain voice recognition, and you may lose your residual hearing, and we don’t know that you’ll regain this.” This was back probably around 2005, 2007 or something, back in through there.
Debbie: I since learned there’s also misinformation out there, and you don’t always know you’re hearing exactly the facts. So when I’m thinking about that, I was like, I still had some residual hearing, and I really relied on that. So it’s kind of like somebody saying, “Well, if you have this surgery you might lose this residual hearing,” and I’m like, “Well, that would plunge me into total deafness quicker, and hearing dogs and birds isn’t really going to help me with my job.”
Debbie: So, I just didn’t really consider it. Then when I went… I guess it was around 2014 they told me, “Oh, they’ve got a new technique that could help conserve, possibly, your residual hearing.” They said, “But it’s kind of new, so you might want to let the surgeons practice on someone else first.” So that was why I was like, “All right, I’ll wait a couple years.” So when I reached this point, it would have been back in summer of 2017, it was time for me to get another exam, just to go and get it checked out. So I thought, “Well, all right, I’ll go have them check everything out and I’ll just ask about cochlear implant.”
Debbie: By that point, I had absolutely zero hearing that you could measure medically as far as that. It is really an interesting process, because then you’ve got to go through the process of them doing tests to determine are you a candidate for this? And just waiting to find out. And it was interesting throughout the process, I really wasn’t sure. I was like, “Lord, is this something that you really want me to do?” And I just sensed him leading me. “This is a tool, and it’s a tool that will help you to be able to continue to engage and do the things that I’m leading you to do.”
Debbie: I felt like he was having me move forward, and brain fatigue was holding me back. I was like, “If this helps this could be huge.”
Richard: But you basically were waiting until all the residual hearing was gone and then you moved forward at that point, because you had almost nothing left at that time.
Debbie: That’s right. When I went into the doctor, I was like, “So, this is the main thing I want to know. Will cochlear implants help me?” And he looked at me and goes, “Of course they’ll help you hear. You’re hearing nothing now.” And he says, “At least you’ll be able to hear dogs bark, birds sing, and all of that. What we don’t know is whether you’ll regain voice recognition or not.”
Richard: And did you?
Debbie: Oh my goodness, it has been the most amazing thing. Right now my last hearing test… I told you before cochlear implants it was zero, my last hearing test, 95% regain of voice recognition-
Richard: Oh my goodness. Wow.
Debbie: … in the sound booth.
Debbie: Oh, it has been the most amazing, life-changing experience. I feel like this year has been a year of wonder. Of hearing things I didn’t even know made noises.
Richard: Talk to me about the day of surgery. You were nervous about surgery going into it? Or how did you feel about the surgery itself?
Debbie: It made such a difference, having a surgeon that I felt so confident in. And I mean, I just felt so incredibly blessed that I had Dr. Loren Bartels doing my surgery, and had talked to other people who told me that he was just topnotch. But also, when I went in for my first visit with Dr. Bartels, I had told my husband before, I said, “You know what drives me crazy? As I go in for audiology visits, otolaryngologist visits, and they put you in a chair that is cemented to the floor and then they sit along the side of the wall, and I just want to keep scooting the chair closer so I can read their lips better.”
Debbie: With Dr. Bartels, he was amazing, the way his whole setup, he knew how to work with deaf people. He had a screen, and when he would speak in to a microphone, and it would transcribe everything he was saying so that you could really understand what he was saying. And he gave you a printed copy of the notes when you left, and he came right in front of you as he was interacting with you. And I just felt like, oh my goodness, here is somebody who really cares about people who are deaf, who really gets what it’s like to be deaf. And I was blown away.
Debbie: I guess seeing that, hearing recommendations about him, I just felt such a blessing to have him and that gave real peace, knowing that I was in the hands of somebody… I remember the day I went in for surgery, he was doing five surgeries that day. This is somebody I had read online where they recommended find a surgeon who does at least 50 surgeries a year, preferably with the majority of them being with the type of cochlear implant you’re being implanted with.
Richard: But your surgery was very complicated. I understand you had a very unique situation.
Debbie: Yes. Dr. Bartels was actually the first person to ever diagnose my hearing loss, because it was a very different hearing loss. Which is one of the reasons why hearing aids didn’t work for me, was because instead of a gradual slope on my audiogram, it was more like a cliff. So where I heard, I heard normal, what I didn’t hear, there was nothing. So there really wasn’t anything for hearing aids to amplify, if that makes sense. That’s why it got in the way of me actually hearing.
Debbie: Dr. Bartels looked at me. I described what it was. And he said, “Oh, that’s Bing Siebenmann dysplasia.” He had a younger person in there who he was educating about this, and it was the most fascinating thing, because honestly, I’d had all sorts of experimental tests and everything where doctors would try to determine what this hearing loss was from, and he immediately knew what it was. So what he told me was, he said, he had to insert the electrodes… I may be getting the details wrong, but I think it was about 16 millimeters, a little bit deeper. At least a little bit deeper into the cochlear.
Debbie: That meant even though I probably could have qualified for getting both of them at once, he said, “Let’s start with just one, because since I have to insert the electrodes deeper into the cochlear, there may be greater risk of dizziness. So let’s just do one and let’s see how it goes.” There was-
Richard: If you have the risk of vertigo-
Richard: You must have been scared out of your mind on surgery day.
Debbie: Do you know, there was that sense that yes, and it was the most incredible thing. The night before my surgery I woke up at 3:00 in the morning, and I just went and I was spending some time with God, because of course my heart is going, you know? I mean, I had total confidence in my doctor, but you don’t know. And they make you sign off, there’s all these different things that could possibly happen. And I just happened, in my Bible, to be reading the story of when Jesus heals a little girl, and he says to her, “Talitha cumi, little girl, come.” And it’s interesting, because it’s said in the context of as he’s on his way to heal this little girl there’s a woman who has been bleeding for over a decade, and it says in there, she spent her money on doctors who couldn’t help her. And I’m like, “Oh, I hope I’m like the little girl at the end of the story of that one.”
Richard: [crosstalk 00:23:24]
Debbie: But it just felt like the Lord was just saying, “Come, I’m with you. I’m taking you this way.” There wasn’t an assurance that there wouldn’t be complications, because sometimes the way God leads is hard, but I had a peace that if there was that he would carry me through. He would help me. But yes, I probably would not be human if there wasn’t that sense of some anxiety that you’re feeling. And it was so good. I painted that night, because painting just helps me process emotions.
Richard: You mentioned your husband. You met him… Obviously you had a hearing loss at the time and it got worse with time. Talk to me a little bit about how he dealt with your hearing loss.
Debbie: Oh, do you know? He’s such a gift to me. I mean, he really is. I often say I think it’s harder for the person who’s married to someone with hearing loss than it is for us who actually have the hearing loss, because he had to constantly be adapting too. He couldn’t call to me from another room. He had to repeat himself. God bless that man. He really tried so hard to keep me involved, to paraphrase when people were saying things. I love his sense of humor, his laugh, because you know, you’ll be in the middle of a dinner conversation and somebody will ask you something, and lipreading is really a misnomer. It’s not like reading, like reading words on a page. You can only get maximum maybe 30% of the words. So it’s more like fill in the blank, a very educated guessing game, where context helps. But there are some times I’ll completely hear wrong. And then, all of a sudden, the room kind of gets quiet as people look at one another real funny.
Richard: Some people withdraw into isolation because they’re afraid to open their mouth and say the wrong thing in a group.
Richard: But not you.
Richard: You just blurted it right out.
Debbie: Well, it’s because Jim… He just kept encouraging me. “Keep a sense of humor, babe.” You know? Just, “Keep a sense of humor. We can tell them it’s not early onset Alzheimer’s,” you know? And he’d always go to bat for me. “She didn’t hear you.” Or sometimes he’d say, “Sweetie, what do you think they said?” And I’d say that, and we’d all just roar out laughing because if you can keep a sense of the fun in life instead of taking it personally, you know, you do the best you can.
Richard: You are very strong. Most people take it personally.
Debbie: Well, I’m sure there are times, but-
Richard: Okay, so, now you decide to move forward. You had your operation. How did you choose the company? I’m sure that they must have done what we call a document dump where they just dump all the manufacturers on your lap and say, “Choose one.” How did you go about choosing what you did?
Debbie: Do you know, that was one of the hardest things, because the way everything is set up nobody wants to tell you what to do. And I felt so unbelievably alone. Obviously, I ran to the Lord. I was really praying about this. It was interesting, one of the companies sent me a book and I jokingly told my husband, “Anybody who sends me a book gets my business.” But then as I started moving forward, I started to feel like maybe that was going to be the best choice for me. Moving forward with that. And actually, just the week before I was going for my scheduled preop appointment, okay? And I just cried out the Lord, and I was like, “God, I just feel so unbelievably alone. Would you please just send me somebody who can help me?”
Debbie: It was interesting, because one of the companies had sent me an email, and the person had said, “Hey, if you have any questions just email me back, I’d be so happy to answer them.” So I sent her an email back, and I get immediate response that that message had gone into her spam folder. And so I was just like, “Oh, my goodness.” So then I just happened to get another email that day from Cochlear America, and they told me that there was going to be a meeting in Rome, Georgia, on the exact day of my… You know, coming up in Rome, Georgia. That’s eight hours away from me. I’m like, “How did I get on this list?”
Debbie: But there was a name of a contact person, so I sent her an email, and I was like, “Look, is there anybody closer to me who I could possibly meet with to talk about this?” Because at that point Cochlear America had just come out with the N7, and I was like, “I would love to meet somebody who got an N7, just to talk with them, to hear about what it’s like. I think it would just help me feel so much better.”
Debbie: She immediately emails me back, says, “I would be glad to meet with you,” and she sent me the name of this wonderful gentleman named Richard Pocker. That next day, we met at Starbucks, and that was a huge game-changer. To be able to meet with somebody. Because, you know, what’s hard is the way this is all set up between surgeons and audiologists, and everybody, there is a business side to it. So it’s hard to get people to give you a clear answer. “Well, I really think you should do this one, or that.” It needs to be your decision, and that’s why I’m so thankful there’s things like-
Richard: That’s part of the medical profession-
Debbie: Oh, it is.
Richard: … and the FDA rules, that’s just the way it is.
Richard: They’re not supposed to recommend. Activation day. You get turned on. What did you hear?
Debbie: Oh, goodness. Well, that was where I was so very, very thankful that I had received an email that morning telling me, where you had shared about your experience that morning with me, just that when you were activated, you didn’t hear immediately. So what I loved about that, and so appreciated about getting that email, when I went in for activation, my expectations were lower.
Debbie: I was so glad, because I was like, “I do not want anybody videotaping this. I don’t want the pressure.” You know what I’m saying? Of being watched, because I don’t know what it’s going to be like. Because it could have been that I regained voice recognition right away. It could have been that I just didn’t… I heard bells and whistles or something. I could have just been that I heard sensations or something. So I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Debbie: It was interesting, because when Dr. Vicky Moore, when she did the first test, and that’s not one where you’re hearing at all, I didn’t realize it at the time, but she said my auditory nerves were non-responsive. And one of the representatives from Cochlear America was present when I was being activated, and she said, “I don’t know if you saw, but I looked back at Katie Figueroa and I thought, “Uh oh.” But then when she started piping in sound, it felt like being plopped into the middle of a Looney Tunes cartoon. I was hearing bells and whistles, pops and jingles, and it was so crazy.
Debbie: Vicky asked me a question and I answered, and it was the most wild thing, because I opened my mouth and bells and whistles are coming out of my mouth. I thought, “I’m never going to talk again.”
Richard: How long did it take for the sounds to normalize? I know everybody’s different. What was your experience?”
Debbie: It was the most amazing thing. As we’re sitting there in that first audiology appointment, the activation was a little over an hour and a half long. Towards the end of the activation appointment, all of a sudden I started realizing, “Wait a minute, those bells, those whistles,” started taking shape as words. I was like, “Wait a minute, I think that’s a word. That is a word.” By the end of the appointment, I was understanding my husband. Now, he sounded like a robot.
Richard: That is essentially what Jim sounds like.
Debbie: But it was the most amazing thing. I was like, “I’m hearing what you’re saying.” I was understanding it. And as we drove home, we’re driving home in the car, and I had downloaded the Angel Sounds app which is an app that can help you practice. So as my first time ever doing it, I scored 75% on it. Now, some of it may have been educated guessing, but I was like, “This is amazing.” We get home and my husband says, “Deb, go into the other room,” because with the N7 the iPhone streams directly in now. And he goes, “Let’s just see how does it work.”
Debbie: He went into the other side of the house and he called me, and the first thing I ever heard on the phone was my husband saying, “I love you.”
Richard: Aw. That’s so nice. You know, that brings us back two or three steps to all the years you didn’t have hearing, how did you deal with the phone? You just couldn’t use a phone, obviously?
Debbie: You know, it was so funny. In the beginning… This is 14 years ago. I had a little flip phone, and what I would do is, the University of South Florida, where I was on campus at the time, I’d go to meet with students and they’d be up in their dorms. So I would dial them and I’d say, “Hey, I’m downstairs.” If they said anything other than, “I’ll be right down,” which I figured how that would go, I would have to grab hold of a student who happened to be walking by and say, “Excuse me, could you please tell me what they’re saying?”
Richard: That’s another adaptation, which brings us to story, what happens if you needed 911? If you needed help and you were deaf and you couldn’t use the phone? Did you ever have an incident where you were helpless?
Debbie: Yes. I had been speaking at a women’s retreat. There was a lot of cleaning up and everything to do, and so almost everybody had left. And I went outside and my car wouldn’t start. So I had my phone, and this is before cochlear implant, and I’m calling AAA. And I’m saying into my phone, “Okay, I can’t tell if anybody’s picked up, and I’m here, but I’m going to read you, this is my name, and this is my AAA number, and this is my location, would you please come? And just in case you hadn’t picked up yet when I started, I’m going to repeat the information.” I repeated it about three times, and then I just hung up and was just waiting. Thankfully there was one woman who was still there and she came over.
Debbie: At that point, I was telling her about what was happening, because the battery had died in my car. And she said, “Well, let me just call AAA.” She dials the number for AAA, and this is right after Hurricane Irma, and she goes, “Oh, there’s no phone service.” I had just been sitting there-
Richard: There are other people I’ve interviewed and that’s the key question I have is about how did you deal with an emergency? Because one of the things that we like to talk about is the motivation for getting a cochlear implant, that you’re no longer dependent on others to help you. So you use the phone today without hesitation?
Debbie: Oh, now, it’s the most wonderful thing. In fact it actually expanded my work even more, because now I coach using Zoom. So I am able to coach people online. I’m able to coach people on the other side of the world.
Richard: Which is great. Were there other things that you had changed in your life after you got a CI? After you got a cochlear implant, what other changes can you talk about?
Debbie: Oh my goodness, there are so many things. You know, it’s funny, you don’t realize, I don’t think, the things that you’re missing. It was really interesting, because a television station wanted to do an interview with me, and one of the students that I met with. It was the most fascinating thing, because they’re asking her, because she met with me before cochlear implants for a year and a half, and then met with me for half a year afterwards, and so they were like, “What was the difference before and after?”
Debbie: She said, “Well, you know, before I just kind of told her the bare bones of things because I knew she was working so hard to understand. But now I can share so much more of life in so much more detail.” And I was like, “I didn’t know that people weren’t telling me everything they wanted to tell me.” I told my husband that and he goes, “Oh yeah, that’s true for me too.” And it is the most wonderful thing to be sharing so much more of life with my husband, really able to hear what he has to say. When it was dark, I could never read his lips. Now I can hear everything that he wants to say. It’s the most amazing gift just to be able to do that.
Debbie: I’m a cyclist. I love biking. I honestly think my guardian angel’s going to be so happy when I make it to heaven so they can get a vacation, because when you’re hearing impaired, there have been so many times I’ve almost been hit, because you don’t get the feedback of hearing if a car happens to be coming close or anything. It is the most amazing thing now to be able to bike wearing cochlear implants and to get that feedback. I can’t even begin to tell-
Richard: It’s true, it’s true.
Debbie: … you how many times it’s probably saved my life.
Richard: I was almost run over by a fire engine in New York City. Never heard it coming.
Richard: So I know how that goes.
Richard: Let me ask you another question. You have the Nucleus 7, and now you’re bilateral. You got the second-
Debbie: Yes. Yes.
Richard: … one six months or a year later. Are there features of the N7 you like in particular? Number one, and number two, are there features you would like to see in the future?
Debbie: Do you know something? The fact that the N7 streams the iPhone right into my head is the most amazing gift. It is such a blessing to be able to do that. I’m tech challenged and so having to have an intermediary between the phone and my head would be really hard. But it’s the most incredible thing, the way it just streams right in. The clarity is just superb.
Richard: What about music? Do you listen to music?
Debbie: I do. I actually play the guitar. And that has taken more. It’s been a longer process. And I think that’s one of the things… It’s interesting. I think because I had to work so hard to hear without a cochlear implant, because I had that pressing in, that adaptability constantly coming in there trying to figure out, how am I going to do this? Has really made me put in my all, 100%. What is it going to take to keep developing my hearing? Because it’s so much about your brain. It saddens me. I’ll meet people who just don’t keep trying and keep growing, and it’s been amazing how much my ability has grown. The more I listen, the better results I’m getting, and the better I’m hearing. When I first started playing my guitar, it sounded horrible.
Richard: Everybody said that.
Debbie: I was like, “Oh my gosh.”
Richard: What about now?
Debbie: Oh, it’s amazing, because with finger picking… What happened was I think chords were overwhelming the brain. Same thing with the piano. There is nothing like sitting down to a piano and hearing the clarity of the individual notes. Do you know what I’m saying? When I first started out, the singers that I would hear, I thought if they could hear themselves through my ears they would never sing again. It was so bad.
Debbie: When I was just in Colorado, one of my nieces has been taking voice lessons, and she sang to me this precious, precious hymn. And she sang this hymn to me and tears were streaming down my face because her voice sounded so beautiful. This has been such a gift from the Lord that I never even imagined it could get so good.
Richard: That’s fantastic. I have one last question for you. I know you traveled a lot in your work. How did you deal with airports before, when you were deaf?
Debbie: So, when I’m stateside, I always loved to travel Southwest Airlines because they let me board first. And that is such a gift, because one time I was traveling another airline that didn’t allow that, and they suddenly announced over the intercom that the gate had changed. So what happens is when you travel, and I’m on high alert the whole time, I am constantly looking for clues. I can’t just sit back and read a book or something. I’m constantly… And I happened to notice a significant number of people went from one gate to another gate. So I walked up to the front… And this is what’s really bad. I had told them, “I’m hearing impaired, can you let me know if there’s a change,” and they didn’t. So I walked up to the front and said, “Excuse me, I happened to notice a lot of people just moved,” and they said, “Oh yes, that flight has changed to the other end of the airport.” I would have completely missed.
Debbie: There have been a couple times I’ve almost missed my flight, and thankfully it’s never happened, but that’s one of the reasons why I’m just so thankful that Southwest lets me pre-board. I tell them I’m deaf, they go out of their way for me. When I travel internationally, I try to ask people around me. I don’t know, it’s something like, when you’re traveling you can kind of look and scope out, who seems friendly? And you’ll just start talking to people, and I’ll say, “I am deaf.” Again, it’s that not letting fear or pride shut me down but asking for help. And I’ll just ask somebody.
Debbie: I remember the first time I was traveling to the Middle East, there was a gentleman, he was so wonderful. He said, “I will watch out for you as if you were my daughter.” And he… What’s just amazing, through the entire process, he just walked me right through.
Richard: But since you’ve gotten your cochlear implants, are the sound systems in the airport any better?
Debbie: Yes. That is the most amazing thing, because here’s the deal. With cochlear implants, again, they’re not exactly like your ear would be if you had that. So if I’m in conversation with somebody, I may be focusing in on the person and not hear that. But you know what? Even if I could hear normally, I’m the type of person who doesn’t tend to focus on things out there anyways. So I probably do better with flights because I’m aware I need to be paying more attention.
Debbie: But no, it’s amazing to hear the announcements, to do that. But I will say it’s funny because one of the things I most feared was losing my residual hearing. And even at zero there was probably still a little bit that I could still hear. Now, I’m on a plane and there’s a screaming baby next to me, I turn my processors off, and it is the most wonderful flight. I say people probably wish they could buy these.
Richard: You know, it’s true about the residual hearing, because there was a woman I helped in Louisiana, and she had zero on one side, 4% on the other. And it took her almost two years to decide to move ahead. She was afraid of losing the 4%.
Richard: So it’s not an uncommon fear. I have one last question. I’m going to let you go.
Richard: What’s your goal now that you have your hearing back? What are you going to do differently?
Debbie: Do you know, it’s interesting. I love my job, so it’s not like I’m going to be changing anything else that I’m doing. I think one of the things that’s on my heart is to really come alongside and encourage people… Because this is what’s really fascinating. There was one day when I was deaf and I was going to campus, and it was like… This was when I had lost all my hearing. And I was like, “Lord, I don’t even know, am I even going to be able to do any good?” Because there were some people I just could not understand.
Debbie: And I just felt like he said, “Just go and do what you can.” And showing up. And the first student I ran into on campus was deaf. She was severely hearing impaired, and she had been experiencing a progressive loss, and was really down about it. It was the most amazing thing, orchestrated by Him, but it is amazing with students, we all have things we go through that are hard in life, and I love being able to just encourage people, lean in. Don’t pull back. Keep giving it your all. And so being available to just really encourage people to trust the Lord with their circumstances, to keep crying out to Him for ideas, to adapt, and to make the most of it because my heart’s desire is I want to see everybody possible live life to the full, as much as they can. I just think how Jesus said, “I have come, they may have life and have it to the full.” I want to see that. I want to see people, no matter what their circumstances, no matter what hard things come their way in life, experience all the best that the Lord has for them.
Richard: You’re a remarkable person. I thank you so much for your time.
Debbie: Oh, thank you, Richard.