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March 20, 2007

Britton Native Finally Found Answer

From: Marshall County Journal - Britton,SD,USA - Mar 20, 2007

Britton native Angela (Sherburn) Wieker was going deaf, and she didn't know why.

The 1992 Britton High School graduate and daughter of John and Sharon Sherburn, was born with normal hearing. She had her hearing tested in kindergarten and everything was normal. But in first grade it was discovered that she had mild hearing loss in both ears.

"My parents were stunned," remembered Wieker. "They took me to a nose and throat doctor in Aberdeen to get a second opinion. He confirmed there was minor hearing loss, but all they could do was monitor it."

Once a year she had her hearing tested, and every year her hearing was worse.

"They didn't know what was causing it," Wieker said. ""My parents took me everywhere - Rochester, Boys' Town, you name it - to try and figure out what was causing it. Nobody could ever figure anything out."

As she was losing her hearing, Wieker developed self-taught survival skills. She learned to lip read, to pay extra attention and be alert, and to anticipate what people may ask. Hearing aids proved worthless, amplifying sound she didn't need amplified but doing nothing to help her understand speech.

After graduating from Northern State in 1996 with a degree in sociology and psychology, she moved to Colorado, and things took a turn for the worse.

"My hearing took a significant drop again, and I could no longer understand people on the phone. I had a job working in human resources, and I couldn't use the phone. Whether or not people got a job depended on what I heard, so it was probably not a great position," laughed Wieker.

But her hearing problem not only affected her job, it affected her life as well. Wieker began to become very isolated socially.

"Not only was my job at risk and extremely stressful, but if I saw people I knew in a store or someplace I would literally hide and avoid them because it was so frustrating to try and understand what people were saying."

At that time Wieker decided to try and find employment where she didn't have to use the phone or communicate with people, but about all she could come up with was data entry or cleaning office buildings, but even Merry Maids wouldn't hire her.

"Cleaning office building is really what I wanted to do, but I couldn't tell people that I had hearing loss. And the people at Merry Maids wouldn't hire me because they couldn't understand why someone with a four-year degree wanted to do that. That was kind of like rock bottom for me."

But Wieker's life was about to take a dramatic turn, thanks to three men in Australia. Those men from "down under" had developed something called a cochlear implant.

When normal-hearing people hear sound, it comes in through the outer ear through the ear canal to the cochlea. In the cochlea there are thousands of little hair cells and fluid. When those hair cells vibrate it stimulates the auditory nerve, which in turn sends a message to the brain to hear the sound.

In many people who experience hearing loss, the nerve is typically fine. The problem is the hair cells that do not move enough to stimulate the auditory nerve.

What an implant does is take the place of the damaged hair cells. Electrodes inserted into the cochlea stimulate the nerve, which sends the message to the brain.

"I had heard of cochlear implants in high school on a "60 Minutes" segment, but you had to have surgery and wear an external box with a cord, and I had decided right then and there I would never do that. But as things evolved and I felt my life being pulled out from underneath me, I didn't have a lot of options."

Meanwhile, Angela's mother had been researching cochlear implants. She had made contact with a center in Denver and was feeling very encouraged. But her daughter didn't share that optimism.

"I was not at all excited. I was basically mad at the world at what options there were at that time. But I agreed to go for an evaluation, and they set me up to meet someone who had a cochlear implant."

Now, for the rest of the story.

Wieker has since had implants in both ears. She has near normal hearing. And she now works for the company that helped turn her life around, giving others hope for their future.

"It completely changed my life," said Wieker. "I feel like the implant truly gave me my life back that had slowly been slipping away as my hearing loss progressed. I had become a glass half-empty type of person, but now the glass is half full. It's something I couldn't even have imagined.

"Now I get up every morning and just want to get out and help other people. Hopfully, I can make their life a little easier as they are going through that scary, unknown territory themselves."

Wieker, who went on to earn her MBA, works as a marketing manager for Cochlear Americas. Her job will soon take her to Australia to the company's global headquarters, where she will spend about six months on a team developing products to help people hear even better in the future.

She has also been able to re-pay a favor.

When Angela was just a fifth grader, she was introduced to Steve Bruce, a Britton High School student at the time, who also had hearing loss.

"Somebody decided that I should meet him to be able to talk to someone else about what it was like to have hearing loss," recalled Wieker. "We kept in touch for a while. Then he was off to college, and I still checked in through his parents a little bit.

"Steve recently went through the process of getting a cochlear implant, and one of the neatest things of my life was that I was able to return a favor to him 20 years later. He had so many questions, and I hope I made it a little easier for him, just as he made me feel better that I wasn't the only person to have hearing loss when I was in fifth grade."

Now her years of struggle finally make sense.

"For 15 years as I was losing my hearing I was trying to make sense of it," concluded Wieker. "Why was this happening to me? But I finally had that question answered. Now I have the opportunity to work for this company and help other people going through the same situation. It was just meant to be."

©Marshall County Journal 2007