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May 2, 2003

Giving back sound

From: Grand Haven Tribune, MI - May 2, 2003



Shuffling papers, hearing yourself eat and saying "um" are common everyday sounds that usually go unnoticed. However, being able to re-familiarize with those "noises" took some getting used to for Grand Haven resident Roy Shields.

Over time, the 62-year-old Shields gradually lost the sounds of high tones in both of his ears.

"It's been going down over the years," he said. "I think it's a normal progression that just comes with age."

Higher-toned sounds, like that of a woman's voice, including his wife, Karen, were sounds that Roy could not hear. "When she'd talk, I would miss some words."

Shields, a retired Muskegon Community College criminal justice instructor and coordinator of its criminal justice program, received a phone call nearly a year ago for free hearing tests at the Hackley Hearing Center. And although Shields already knew that his hearing wasn't very good, one-to-two hours of testing confirmed that he needed hearing aids for both ears.

Shields was lucky that his retirement benefits paid for 50 percent of the cost for the digital in-the-ear Starkey hearing aids.

"Now, with hearing aids I can hear Karen upstairs or anywhere in the house. I can hear everything real well in both ears," he said. "It sure made a heck of a difference for me.

"I've had no problem adapting them to my ears," he said. "It's very comfortable. Fixing two or three minor things out of 100 is not bad. ... It's amazing what (sounds) you miss (with hearing loss)."

HHC owner Michelle Giddings said patients go through a hearing screening to find the profoundness of hearing loss. If a hearing aid is needed, patients are given a cost sheet for hearing aids.

"It's like a menu," she said. "We say, 'These are your choices.' It's the patients, though, who make a decision. They guide us by the (hearing aid) size they want and the price range."

Giddings said patients go through an application process in order to receive hearing aids.

"I really try to exhaust the credit (option) and if they're denied and they really have no other means (to purchase the hearing aids), then we'll (try) to help them," she said. "I don't want anyone to go without hearing just because they can't get any help."

Decisions about giving free hearing aids to patients are not based on specific factors but on individual cases. "It's really a quite varied criteria," Giddings said.

Giddings, who has owned HHC for six years, says she has given away nearly 50 sets of hearing aids in the past few years.

"I've paid for them myself -- out-of-pocket. And collectively as a group, we buy them."

By partnering with Starkey, Giddings said it will be easier to make a decision about giving away free hearing aids and will help HHC financially.

"We'll ask Starkey, if you buy one, we'll buy one," she said.

"I feel that hearing is such a vital part of the body," Giddings said. "It's a huge opportunity for yourself to partner with someone who does so much for people. It gives something back."

"It's not your grandma's hearing aid anymore -- it's changed drastically," she said.

Although there is no one known cause for hearing loss, presbyacusis, or aging, loud noise, oto-toxic drugs, like marijuana, and certain antibiotics have been proven to contribute to hearing loss, Giddings said. "The number one factor is long-term noise exposure," she said.

Montague resident Lois Larson says winning a pair of digital over-the-ear hearing aids, valued at $2,200, from an HHC drawing was a miracle.

"I thank God every day for this place and their big heart," the 82-year-old said. "They're more blessed to give than to receive."

Larson, who lost total hearing from her right ear while the hearing in her left was deteriorating, said she's proud to wear her hearing aids and has never been embarrassed about them or tried to hide them. "If it's something that can help you, be glad.

"Now with both hearing aids, I feel balanced," Larson said. "I didn't realize that my hearing was that bad. (The hearing aids) made a world of difference."

Before wearing hearing aids, Larson said she had trouble hearing people who talked too fast or too softly.

"Now I feel more confident," she said. "I don't have to say 'huh' or 'what' so much. It's a wonderful gift."

Although she knew that sooner or later that she would need hearing aids, Larson said she would have held off buying them if she hadn't won them.

"They're so expensive," she said.

Hearing aids cost anywhere between $495 to $3,000 for each piece, Giddings said. That price would double if both ears need a hearing aid.

"Hearing technology is constantly improving," Austin said, noting that Starkey spends more than $15 million a year on hearing aid technology. "We have to keep up with all the hearing-impaired research and development that goes on so we can do better at improving hearing loss. People want the best solution possible for their hearing condition."

On a recent trip to the Tri-Cities area, Austin, 61, met with employees from HHC to share his vision of giving people the gift of hearing -- the same vision he shares with Giddings.

"We take care of people who are in need," Austin said. "We pay for the products, and Hackley Hearing Center donates their service and time to the patient.

"We believe that everyone is important," he added. "Hearing is a birthright. People who are denied hearing are dehumanized -- it diminishes people. We fight for hearing. We are here to fix broken hearing.

"Most people have (some) hearing. There's only a few who are (completely) deaf," he said. "Some hearing we can work with; none we can't."

Through his vision and leadership, Austin formed the Starkey Hearing Foundation in 1978 to help individuals who are deprived of hearing and do not have the financial resources for a hearing aid.

"A major part of the hearing aid foundation is done through more than 150 missions a year around the world," Austin said. "We never say no to people in need -- so they can be all they can be for themselves, their family and our world."

"Hearing is our concern, framed around the meaning of our work. It's a concern because you are mentally engaged and worried about it," he said referring to hearing-impaired patients. "If you have and show concern, what do you do about the people who can't pay (for hearing aids)? So we started a policy right from the beginning: We make the same ear pieces for the poorest people in the world as we do for the richest. They'll always be available."

Austin said the foundation has two levels of support: that from the public and volunteers within the company providing work efforts, such as going on worldwide mission trips to fit people for ear pieces. "We pay for the missions ourselves," he said referring to recent mission trips, including Nicaragua, Columbia, Brazil and Vietnam, Mexico, Romania, Honduras, Panama, Brazil and Ecuador.

The foundation receives an average of $1.5 million each year in donations, Austin said. "It's going up every year because hearing loss is much more widely known."

The foundation also receives many in-kind donations, such as batteries and hearing aids that can be reconditioned into new ones, from major companies, including Rayovak.

"A reconditioned hearing aid works just as well as a new one for some individuals," Austin said.

"Hackley Hearing Center is a good customer," Austin said, noting that Hackley signed up to partner up with Starkey at a February seminar. "Working with us is a benefit to our customers because it increases their level of determination and commitment to the efforts we achieve. We want to grow in our ability to give."

"I just truly believe that what comes around goes around," Giddings said. "If I do good for someone, hopefully someone will do good for me."

Giddings encourages people to get a hearing screening. "Usually they're free," she said. "Go to a place where the people are state-licensed and are willing to give you information and guide you, not push you."

"(Hackley Hearing Center) has their hearts in the right place," Larson said. "They have a heart for people who can't get (hearing aids) themselves. I want God to bless each one of them who had a part in this. I thank Hackley Hearing Center from the bottom of my heart. They have given me real joy and happiness," she said with a glowing smile.

Copyright © Grand Haven Publishing Corp.