On October 1, 2009, Daniel and Natalie Hobbs of Birmingham, Alabama received a phone call they will never forget. They had taken their daughter, Allie, to school that morning thinking everything was fine. A few hours later, her teacher called. “She said, ‘Something’s not right,’” Daniel remembers. “’Allie’s not responding to any sound.’”
Allie was born December 22, 2005, a healthy baby girl with apparently normal hearing. Over the next two years, though, there were troubling signs that her hearing was not what it should be—and possibly, inexplicably, declining. “She was very articulate in the words she knew,” Natalie explains, “but sometimes they didn’t come out right. And when she was two, she stopped using some words altogether.” She was eventually diagnosed with severe hearing impairment, which continued to worsen even with the use of a hearing aid. So when that frightening call came from the school, Allie’s parents rushed her to the doctor, and their worst fears were confirmed: their daughter was completely deaf.
A Reason to Hope
Allie had already been receiving services from the HEAR Center at Children’s of Alabama, which provides comprehensive diagnostics and intervention for patients who are hard of hearing. With the decline in Allie’s condition, the team at the HEAR Center was ready to talk about new treatment options—including the possibility of cochlear implants. They met Dr. Audie Woolley, who has been on the leading edge of pediatric cochlear-implant surgery throughout his career and started the state’s very first cochlear-implant program for kids at Children’s in 1995.
“When you give a diagnosis that a child is deaf, it’s devastating,” Woolley explains. “But if we can preface it by saying, ‘We can help—there is a treatment for this,’ their faces light up. They understand that their child can be raised as a hearing child, and that’s truly rewarding.”
Meanwhile, over the next few months, with Allie undergoing a battery of tests and procedures as her family waited for final word on her eligibility for cochlear implants, the HEAR Center provided support they desperately needed. Allie’s audiologist, Emily Rector, says the staff is sensitive to the trauma families are experiencing during the transition. “We try to be there for parents, support them and answer questions,” she says. “We also get them in touch with other parents who have already been through the process and understand.”
Allie’s parents say receiving that comfort and encouragement from other families was invaluable. “When you’re first going through it, you have no idea whatsoever how to think about the future,” Daniel explains. “Talking to the parents who have gone through it themselves was huge.”
A Long Road Ahead, Worth Every Step
After three months, Allie was cleared for cochlear-implant surgery. The surgery itself lasted eight hours, and Allie came through beautifully. But the family understood they still had a long road ahead. While every cochlear-implant surgery is successful in the sense that every patient gains (or regains) hearing, the ability to actually develop speech depends on a number of factors. “It’s not as simple as, you turn this device on and you hear,” Daniel explains. “Patients have to learn how to hear what they’re hearing, and that comes through intense speech therapy and training.”
For starters, even before receiving her implants, Allie had recently become one of the first students to enroll at Alabama School for Hearing, which was founded as a collaborative effort of the Alabama Ear Institute and Children’s of Alabama to provide students the vocabulary and spoken-language skills necessary to succeed in a mainstream kindergarten classroom. Dr. Woolley and Dr. Robert L. Baldwin of the Alabama Ear Institute were the visionaries in starting the school. Thanks to financial and other forms of support from the community, the school is able to provide its services to families free of charge.
“The HEAR Center at Children’s and the Alabama School for Hearing changed the course of Allie’s life,” Daniel states. “If it weren’t for those, she wouldn’t be where she is now.”
Still, for as much credit as the Hobbs family gives the staff at Children’s and the school, Woolley says he can’t overstate the role parents themselves play.
“They are one of the biggest keys to success,” he explains. “If they’re not diligent about getting their child to wear the implants (many resist, as Allie did at first), having them practice reading and speech and all those kinds of things, that child is not going to do as well as one whose parents are all over it. The home environment is a huge factor.”
It wasn’t always easy, Natalie admits. “It was a struggle, because Allie had a short attention span, and it was hard work for her. We did auditory verbal therapy with her longtime therapist, Nancy Gregg—who has been wonderful—for an hour each week, and a parent sits in so we are trained to do the therapy at home, too. She would send me home with stacks of things to work on and lists of vocabulary words to learn. Sometimes it felt overwhelming, but I wanted Allie to be able to communicate with the world around her.” Determined, Natalie also tried to make it fun for her daughter. “I learned that therapy happens all the time. You take advantage of any opportunity to introduce new words and concepts, because kids retain it much better seeing it in their world rather than at the kitchen table.”
After her sixth birthday, Allie moved on from the Alabama School for Hearing and transitioned to her neighborhood elementary school, where she’s thriving, even as she has to work harder than her peers to continue to make up for lost time. But you wouldn’t know it if you met her. She’s a beautiful, curious and energetic 10-year-old girl who loves roller coasters, sports and American Girl dolls. One of her dolls even has cochlear implants of her own.
Woolley says a success story like Allie’s is the kind that makes his job worthwhile. “Before the surgery, her family’s world seemed pretty dark,” he remembers. “Their daughter was losing her hearing, and no one could stop it. And then after the implants, they were just amazed and grateful. That means a lot to us as healthcare providers, to see a child doing really well and the parents recognizing it. They’re a wonderful family.”
Children’s of Alabama is the primary beneficiary of charitable contributions generated by the 2016 Regions Tradition.
Daniel Hobbs is an associate of Regions.