Help The Children Hear - Star Ledger Article
With Hearing Aids and a Dream, Pair Visit a Land of Deaf
Katherine Abbiate has been learning a lot about hearing aids, even though she is not hearing impaired and doesn’t know the first thing about being a hearing specialist. The Blairstown substitute teacher and her 18-year-old daughter, Amanda, a senior at North Warren Regional High School, spent a recent Sunday getting a crash course in how hearing aids work from West Caldwell audiologist David Gurian.
They listened for hours as Gurian walked them through the intricacies of audiograms, which measure an individual’s hearing ability. They sat patiently as Gurian fitted them with a mold for a hearing aid so both women could understand why a child squirms a little when having one placed in his or her ear for the first time.
“I know a little bit more about hearing aids than I did before,” Abbiate said after her visit. “But certainly not enough that I should hang out my shingle.”
Still, as she and her daughter boarded a plane yesterday for Argentina with 145 hearing aids and more than 3000 batteries neatly tucked into their suitcases, they felt fully prepared for the task at hand.
For the next 10 days, the Abbiates will help medical workers dispense the hearing aids to children with severe hearing impairments in the impoverished northern Argentina provence of Tucumán, which has a population of 1.1 million and where an estimated 120 to 150 babies are born each year with severe hearing problems.
For Katherine Abbiate and Gurian, the trip is part of an ambitious dream for a worldwide hearing aid bank that one day will supply devices to any hearing-impaired child, no matter what.
To that end, they are seeking donations of used hearing aids from “anyone, anywhere, any time,” according to Abbiate. Those aids would be refurbished for a new owner.
Gurian and Abbiate are working with their respective Rotary Clubs in Blairstown and Caldwell, Rotary International and the Starkey Hearing Aid Laboratories in Minneapolis to set up the hearing aid bank.
“Without hearing, these children can’t learn to speak. If they can’t learn to speak, they can’t get a good education to help stop the cycle of poverty. We’re trying to stop that,” said Gurian.
The audiologist, who was unable to make the trip because of family and business obligations, said he doesn’t know the reason behind the high rate of hearing impairment in Tucumán, although he speculated on such factors as inadequate nutrition, undetected ear infections and heredity.
“I bet there are people all over the world who are born with hearing problems, but in some countries, they have no way to treat it and take care of it,” said Gurian, who runs Gurian Hearing and Vision Center in West Caldwell. And hearing aids, which can cost as much as $4,000 are simply not available in places like Tucumán.
Starkey has provided hearing aids to places in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, Peru, Columbia, India and other parts of the world where medical help is not easily available and where people cannot afford to pay a doctor, said Michael Bastyr, marketing director for Starkey.
The concept of a worldwide hearing bank can be traced to Amanda Abbiates experience two years ago as a Rotary Club youth exchange student. While spending a year in Tucumán, which is some 700 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, she became involved in Help the Children Hear, a project sponsored by Rotary International and run by the Tucumán Sur Rotary from a local hospital, the Hospital del Niño Jesus.
During a trip to Tucumán to visit her daughter, Kathering Abbiate saw mothers sobbing with happiness as they watched their children, having been fitted with hearing devices, hear for the first time. She was hooked.
Gurian learned about the project through an article Abbiate wrote for the Rotary newsletter. He offered his services and contacted the Starkey Foundation, which annually provides 10,000 refurbished hearing aids to people all over the world.
The hearing aids going to Tucumán were purchased for a discounted $50 apiece from the Starkey Foundation, with the money coming from $20,000 in matching grants and donations from Rotary International and the Rotary Clubs in Blairstown, Caldwell and Tucumán Sur.
In anticipation of the time when the grant funds are depleted, Gurian is hoping for an arrangement with Starkey in which the foundation will give credit for a new or refurbished hearing aid to the Rotary Club in exchange for every used hearing aid that Rotarians turn in.
Gurian envisions no shortage of hearing aids from the public.
“There’s enough used instruments laying around in dresser drawers,” said the audiologist. He also plans to make appeals to hearing professionals with a poster designed by West Orange artist Herb Schwartz that Starkey offered to print and dispense to its client list of 3,000 audiologists and hearing specialists across the country.
Gurian said he is also tapping into the funeral industry, hoping families will contribute the hearing aids of the deceased.
“A good source of used hearing aids would be from clients that we serve,” said Glenn Caprario, a Blairstown funeral director who is president of the Blairstown Rotary Club. “We always offer them back to the families because they’re just not ours, and most want us to discard them.”
Gurian said his next step is to approach elderly residents of assisted-living facilities and anyone else he can think of who may have a used hearing aid they no longer want.
“Anywhere in the world, if a family wants to help their children hear, we should provide them with the ability to hear,” he said.