Hearing loss leads to calling for doctoral student
BLOOMSBURG (AP) — Bethany Noll’s parents knew something was wrong with her hearing by the time she was three.
Their daughter sat too close to the television, and her speech was delayed. “I wouldn’t respond when they said they had candy,” she said.
At four she was fitted with her first set of hearing aids, purple with pink and purple swirled ear molds. For the first time, standing in the family driveway, she could hear the birds sing.
Twenty years later, Noll is working toward her doctoral degree in clinical audiology at Bloomsburg University in between trips to volunteer at pop-up clinics around the globe.
In Haiti, Guatemala and Zambia, she’s helped fit children and adults with hearing aids. Sometimes she’s shown off her brightly colored hearing aids to patients who are nervous about standing out because of their impairment. Once she even donated the pair she was wearing to help a young woman on the spot.
And she hopes to continue traveling and helping people in developing countries access the high-tech hearing aids that people in the U.S. sometimes take for granted (or refuse to take at all.)
Patient to volunteer
After her own diagnosis for bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, Noll’s infant brother was found to have the same congenital condition.
At 12, she and her brother became patients of Dr. Kamal Elliot at A&E Audiology in Lancaster. “It was the only pediatric clinic that participated with the insurance my brother and I had at the time,” Noll said. “It is funny how it all works out because if I wouldn’t have gone there, I don’t know if I ever would’ve considered audiology as a profession.”
She feared her own hearing loss could make it difficult to do the job, but she’s found that being a patient herself helps her empathize with the people she meets.
After she graduated from Cocalico High School near Lancaster, Noll attended Bloomsburg University as an undergraduate, studying Speech Pathology & Audiology with a minor in Spanish.
But on her breaks from school, she returned home to work alongside Dr. Elliot to get a hands-on look at what she was studying in the classroom.
Since joining Elliot on a humanitarian mission to Haiti in 2015, Noll has made five trips to international clinics through Entheos. She also fit the first patient at a non-profit audiology start-up in Lancaster. That program asks recipients to perform community service in exchange for their hearing devices.
Joy, joy, joy
In Zambia, Noll watched a 4-year-old named Sylvia react as she heard her own voice for the first time. The audiologists later found a sponsor so the girl could go to school.
In Guatemala, a woman named Ines received two hearing aids and broke out into song. “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart!” she sang. It was a big change from the fearful young woman who had told the volunteers that because she couldn’t hear she was scared to even leave her house.
“My first fitting in Haiti was a 10-year-old boy named Zacary,” Noll said. “He was very shy the entire time, but when we turned the hearing aids on his face lit up with a huge, beautiful smile. I knew I was doing exactly what I am meant to do.”
During another trip to Panajachel, Guatemala, Noll met 16-year-old Esmerelda.
The teen was afraid her classmates would make fun of her, but after Noll showed off her own hot pink hearing aids, they fit Esmerelda with a pair of her own in light pink.
When she saw the girl again this January, the ear molds had started to deteriorate.
It was the last day the clinic was operating, and supplies were dwindling.
So Noll and Dr. Elliot agreed that the best option was to use Noll’s hearing aids, reprogram them for Esmerelda, and send her on her way. “They were some of the best hearing technology on the market, so we were very happy to give them to her,” Noll said.
The two have stayed in contact via social media. “We now refer to each other as sisters,” Noll said. They reunited earlier this month when Esmerelda volunteered at another clinic being run near her home. “She was showing people how to take care of their hearing aids … We were able to help Esmerelda, and now she in turn wants to help her community.”
Noll isn’t shy about her hearing aids.
She’s always picked bright colors for the devices, preferring to embrace what makes her different rather than trying to blend in. “It’s like glasses,” she said. People aren’t afraid to pick brightly colored frames. “Why do people wear colorful, fashionable glasses and not think anything of that, but they worry about being seen with a hearing aid?”
But there’s still a stigma. On average it takes five to 10 years for someone with trouble hearing to get help, Noll says. Even then it’s usually because a family member has intervened or encouraged them to get checked out.
“Some people say hearing aids are expensive, but we know that the primary reason they avoid doing anything is because they worry about what people will think if they wear hearing aids,” she said.
Noll tries to be an advocate for people suffering from hearing loss while teaching others about how to interact with them. “Get their attention,” she advises, but don’t shout. “Talk in a normal voice.”
Her personal background gives her an opening to relate to parents who just learned their child has a hearing condition. “Their child can still be successful and do well in school and live a normal life. Hearing loss does not have to limit them in any way.”
Older patients marvel at her. “You’re so young!” they tell her when she reveals her hearing aids.
For now, Noll will continue her studies in the hopes of graduating in 2019, and maybe one day opening her own practice. She would like to return to Guatemala, and make trips to India and Africa in the next year.
And she’ll continue to volunteer at A&E Hearing Connection, the nonprofit in Lancaster.
To donate to help Noll’s volunteer efforts: https://www.gofundme.com/hearing-the-call