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July 2, 2003

Sounds shape a youth's new adventure

From:, MI - Jul 2, 2003


Deprived of hearing his mother's comforting words as an infant or the crack of the bat while playing his beloved game of baseball as a teen, Ryan Pumford was shocked to hear his first sounds last March.

They were too loud.

So loud that the buzz of air conditioning, the hum of tires on the pavement or the clinking of forks on a plate all were bothersome at first.

"It shocked me, really shocked me, everything was loud," said Pumford, using his mother, Sharon, as an interpreter.

"There were a lot of tears, tears of joy," Sharon Pumford said of those first sounds March 20 after successful cochlear implant surgery.

"It was a three-hour process when they slowly turned it on with beeps and sounds. And when they had him speak, he just about fell over."

Three months after the operation, the sounds remain loud but are beginning to take shape for Pumford, who is quickly improving his spoken language. At this point, doctors believe he is ahead of the curve on improvement, and they keep jacking up the volume about every three weeks.

"He has to learn to trust his hearing, to listen," Sharon Pumford said. "I often say it's a guy thing because guys don't listen anyway."

The change is the first of several for Pumford, 19, who goes off to Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology in the fall, leaving behind a town he credits with helping him get "to where I am today."

His words mirror those in a Pumford family letter to the editor of The Saginaw News today, thanking the St. Charles schools and community for their support through the years.

From his friends Rob Eickholt and Greg Goidosik, to school interpreters Hope Tompkins and Dixie Salgar, to the teachers, coaches and students, the Pumfords recognize the effort and support needed for a hearing impaired student to graduate with honors in a mainstream school.

"He did a great job," said Sandra Casey, Pumford's teacher-consultant for the hearing impaired in the Saginaw School District.

Casey, who works with more than 30 hearing-impaired students throughout Saginaw County, helped counsel and tutor Pumford after he transferred from Saginaw to St. Charles in the second grade.

"He had a very supportive family, they pushed him all the way," Casey said. "It's a very good family and that's what it takes. Without parents pushing and helping, insisting he do it the right way and not slack off, he might not have made it."

Born "profoundly deaf," Pumford wore hearing aids in both ears as a toddler before losing all of his hearing in his left ear in kindergarten.

His right ear receives about 20 to 30 percent hearing, enough to combine with lip-reading and sign language to communicate. That was also enough to also discourage doctors from inserting an implant on the right, which would damage what little hearing he had left.

Pumford learned to communicate in American Sign Language at an early age and has become an expert lip-reader.

"He's a great person to take places -- 'Hey, what are they saying?' " Sharon Pumford said.

In March, he opted for cochlear implant surgery, a procedure he had shunned until the technology made the implants less cumbersome and more like a hearing aid.

The unit has three major components, including one that was put into his skull during surgery.

"The doctor was impressed with the thickness of his head," Sharon Pumford said, joking.

Behind his ear is a quarter-sized magnet that lines up with the implanted unit, while a receiver that looks like a hearing aid is around his ear.

During the surgery, doctors hook up the unit directly to the auditory nerve, bypassing the poorly functioning inner ear.

"It's almost like a cell phone, there's a receiver on the outside and it goes to a receptor on the inside," Sharon Pumford explained.

Despite getting some backlash from deaf peers, Ryan Pumford thinks the surgery will help better navigate the hearing world.

"Yes, there's a stigma big time," admits Ryan Pumford. "One of my best friends (who will room with him at college) chose not to have it."

Pumford faced similar criticism when he went to St. Charles as a youth instead of a place such as the Michigan School for the Deaf.

"We explored a lot of different options," said Sharon Pumford. "To put it mildly, we were frowned upon by some in the deaf community for bringing Ryan to a home district.

"But you have to remember the deaf community and their history; people referred to them as 'deaf and dumb.' Many were abused if they used sign language. There is a strong deaf culture because of what society for years did to them.

"You have a strong push to stay in the deaf community and not to be in the hearing world, but we didn't feel as parents we wanted to make that choice. Ryan has to make that choice and we felt we had to give him all the different options.

"But he's never denied his deafness. It's always been a part of who he is."

Pumford's implants came after already navigating mainstream schooling in St. Charles, where he graduated this spring with honors and a stack of varsity letters from four sports -- golf, football, basketball and baseball.

Pumford was an all-league performer in basketball (second team) and baseball (first team). Athletics was a perfect vehicle for him.

"Sports got him past a lot of stuff," said Sharon Pumford. "Sometimes kids don't know or don't understand, but they understand someone who can hit a home run or make a basket. That was his door into a lot of things."

Pumford played three years of varsity golf -- his 16-year-old brother, Nick, recently shot the lowest score at the Saginaw District Golf Tournament but was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard -- but opted for football in his senior season.

"That's the game I love to play," said Pumford, who took snaps at tight end and fullback. "It was something new and I wanted to play with my friends for the last time.

"It also got me in shape for baseball."

Baseball is Pumford's real love, and he said he might try out for the Rochester Institute team after playing Stan Musial ball this summer in Saginaw Township.

"Academics comes first, though," he said.

The Rochester Institute has more than a dozen schools and colleges, including the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. The school estimates that 1,150 of its 14,000 students are hearing impaired.

That added to Pumford's comfort level.

"I thought that the college had the best program to help me for my future," said Pumford, who with Casey's help attended a Rochester Institute of Technology program last summer. "They have a lot more understanding of what a deaf person needs."

He also admits that the girls were cute.

"We laugh, but socially it's a big factor," Sharon Pumford said. "He felt accepted there."

Yet, he is sad to leave his friends and the community that accepted him so wholeheartedly.

"Without them I wouldn't be here today," he said. t

Greg Mancina covers sports for The Saginaw News. You may reach him by calling 776-9670.

© 2003 Saginaw News.