A Sound Plan, Times Two

Graduate student Alyssa Lerner customizes an impression using silicon. The impression will be made into a mold that will house an in-canal hearing aid.

Graduate student Alyssa Lerner customizes an impression using silicon. The impression will be made into a mold that will house an in-canal hearing aid.

Barry LaPoint / UNC

Identical twin brothers recently got an early start to the holiday season when they returned to a UNC clinic — where they were first diagnosed with hearing impairment as infants 16 years ago — to get evaluated and fitted for new hearing aids after their previous devices were lost when their family's home was destroyed.

Inside sound booths located in Gunter Hall, Adam and Jonathan are instructed by audiologists to read back the words coming through their headsets.

The soft-spoken identical twins had spent weeks coping in class and at home when faculty member Erinn Jimmerson learned of their situation — thanks to a response to her email to Weld County school audiologists asking if any K-12 students were in need following September's devastating floods.

Days later, the brothers were in UNC's Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology Clinic, where Jimmerson supervises audiology services. Graduate students Alyssa Lerner and Kristin Holm retested the boys' hearing in sound booths in the Gunter Hall clinic and then custom made the impressions that would be used to make their hearing aids.

Jimmerson and Professor Jenny Weber, who first tested Adam and Jonathan in the first months of their lives in 1997, consulted with the family. They learned that the family had lost most of their belongings in the flood.

Without hearing aids, students with any degree of hearing impairment can struggle - especially in class. Even sitting in the front row in class, Adam admitted it wasn't easy without the hearing aids. With encouragement from Jimmerson, he and Jonathan made assurances they would wear their new hearing aids at school.

The small, completely-in-canal devices, donated by Starkey Hearing Foundation, will help, Weber said.

Students and faculty in the department also adopted the family for the holidays. They wrapped gifts of clothing and gift cards and presented them to the family when the boys were fitted with the devices.

"No one had a dry eye," Weber said.

About Audiology Services at the Clinic

Weber, Jimmerson and her colleagues, who include graduate students, provide evaluations, fittings and follow-up care at the clinic. Area hospitals will refer infants who don't pass their newborn screening to the clinic. Usually only one in 10 referrals has significant, permanent hearing loss that will require intervention. For the others, it's something that may be temporary— such as fluid buildup in the ears, Weber said.

"If we fit infants with hearing loss with hearing aids by six months of age, the outcome is much more positive in terms of development," Weber said.

But only about 25 percent of people with hearing impairment severe enough that they could benefit from hearing aids get them. Weber said the barriers include cost (insurance typically doesn't cover hearing aids for adults; in addition, devices need to be replaced every five years); the stigma of wearing hearing aids (smaller devices have helped, Weber said) and refusal to accept hearing loss by those affected.

The self-supporting nonprofit clinic also offers a mobile clinic that provides off-campus services. It allows clinicians to test in schools, Head Start programs, and in industries with hearing conservation programs.

Since 1958, UNC's Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology Clinic has provided diagnostic and rehabilitative services to people with speech, language, hearing and/or balance difficulties. During the 2013 calendar year, the clinic has seen more than 750 patients. More info at: http://www.unco.edu/NHS/asls/Clinic.htm