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August 11, 2004

Hers is resounding joy

From: San Antonio Express, TX - Aug 11, 2004

Vincent T. Davis
Express-News Staff Writer

Samantha Romo loves to read — so much so that the 7-year-old corrals anyone entering her West Side home to listen to her.

Recently she sat on her father's lap, reading and turning the pages of her favorite book, "Baby Talk," as if she were handling sacred scrolls.

She rested the book on her lap pack covered with Rugrats cartoon characters dancing beneath a beige wire that snaked behind her shirt to a headpiece coiled inside her right ear.

Zipped inside the pack sat a sound processor that serves as a window to the world.

Samantha can hear thanks to a cochlear implant operation financed by the sacrifices of loving parents Hugo and Maria Romo.

When their daughter's health was at risk, the Romos proved the lengths they would go for their child.

They brushed aside their pride and asked strangers for help. They asked companies for donations. They sold all of their possessions.

And they did it so Samantha could hear.

Now she has completed her second year at Sunshine Cottage, a school for deaf children established 47 years ago in the 100 block of Tuleta Drive.

Through an interpreter, the Romos retold their story to visitors sitting in front of a living room table covered with newspaper clippings of their journey that began in Monclova, in the Mexican state of Coahuila.

In 1996, they noticed their baby didn't react to sound. She responded to vibrations when they tapped the hardwood floor or gestured in front of her.

At a local clinic, a pediatrician rang a bell in front of Samantha, who followed the movement with her eyes. The doctor, satisfied with Samantha's reaction, said her hearing was fine.

"We took her to a specialist who told us there's nothing we can do, now accept it," Maria Romo, 31, said, referring to a second opinion.

Because of inner ear damage, the toddler's equilibrium was off, affecting her ability to walk. Hugo Romo, 32, welded a walker together to steady the child as she struggled to learn to walk.

"It's critical that the condition is identified by 6 months," Sunshine Cottage representative Leslie Walter said of testing infants for hearing loss. "The brain has a short window of opportunity."

It would be another year before hospital tests confirmed Samantha was deaf.

Physicians recommended a special school in Monclova — a memory that causes Hugo Romo's eyes to burn with tears.

"How can my daughter be in there?" he asked after learning the school was for children with severe disabilities. "We have to find something."

His brother found the answer on the Internet — cochlear implants, which could give Samantha the gift of sound.

The operation cost $45,000 — more money than they had — in Houston. Their doctor directed them to Dr. Felicito Santos at Muguerza Hospital in Monterrey, where the operation cost $25,000.

In November 1999, they called a family meeting to plan how to raise the money. Hugo and Maria Romo led by example, moving in with Maria's sister Patricia Lopez, selling their television, furniture and clothes at a huge garage sale.

More than 200,000 Monclova residents learned about the Romos' campaign from television and radio stations blanketing the airwaves and from newspaper articles. Hugo Romo's workplace, Altos Hornos de Mexico, SA, the largest steel plant in Mexico, donated $5,000.

The most difficult thing for the couple was dashing across busy intersections with family members and friends in the suburb of Frontera. When the traffic light changed to red, they rushed to each car, asking for donations.

Despite drivers' scornful looks, the family and friends thrust out cans bearing Samantha's picture and the words "Help us realize a miracle" from six to eight hours a day.

Maria Romo remembers days when depression settled upon the couple after repeated rejections from drivers.

"It's OK, let's move on," Hugo would say, believing nothing is gained without hard work, a philosophy he learned from his father, Alfredo.

Every Sunday night the family would gather, updating strategies, and dumping coins and crumpled bills from their donation cans onto tabletops.

An all-volunteer charreada, or rodeo, in Monterrey raised $2,500, the remaining portion needed for the operation.

In April 2000, five months after the fund raising began, Samantha had her operation.

A month later, doctors connected the external device behind Samantha's ear.

Overwhelmed by the new sensation, she cried as noise poured into her ears. Gradually she adjusted to hearing life around her, telling her parents to be quiet so she could enjoy listening to each stirring sound.

The family moved to San Antonio in July 2000 and enrolled Samantha at Sunshine Cottage after they were referred there by a local social group during a 1999 visit.

There, teachers taught her to read and form words like putting together pieces of a puzzle. She even helps her parents with their English.

The Romos have one wish: They want to return to Monclova so Samantha can thank everyone who invested in her gift of sound.

© 2004 KENS 5 and the San Antonio Express-News. All rights reserved.