Beautiful but isolated, Appalachia’s Bell, Clay, and Leslie counties are among the poorest in the United States. Hit hard by the decline in the coal industry, between 30 and 40 percent of families live below the poverty line, their difficulties exacerbated by a location so remote residents face up to an hour drive to the nearest gas station.
Since 1921, the Red Bird Mission has brought critical services including medical care and education to the people of this area. For the last seven years, it has been able to provide hearing care as well, thanks to the generosity of Indiana audiologist Bob DeNyse and groups of audiology students who visit to volunteer. This August, Hear the World joined the effort, bringing an international team of hearing care professionals to the Beverly, KY mission.
For Julius Mariano, Patient Care Coordinator at Connect Hearing’s Gardena, CA hearing center, deciding to apply to the program was easy. “I studied public health in college and wanted to apply what I learned,” he said. “I was hoping to apply to the HEAR Haiti trip sponsored by Hear the World, but didn’t have a passport. This was a perfect opportunity.”
Meanwhile, the chance to serve came as a surprise for Denton, TX audiologist Jody Pogue who had originally applied for a Hear the World mission to Haiti back in May. “I wasn’t selected for that trip, but got a call shortly after to see if I would be willing to work at Red Bird. Of course I jumped at the chance.”
Both were eager to help. “I became an audiologist in order to serve just like this!” Pogue noted. And help they did. Working with a portable audiometer in the quiet back rooms of an old medical facility, Pogue focused on doing diagnostics, follow ups, and initial fittings, while Mariano helped coordinate the 50 scheduled patients and additional walk-ins the volunteers helped each day.
“People lined up an hour early to see us,” Mariano said. “You could feel how eager they were to get the care they needed. When they walked out later, they had the biggest smiles.”
Working alongside audiologists from Austria and the U.S., Pogue found herself the frequent recipient of hugs as she treated patients, many of whom made a lasting impression.
“We saw a man in his eighties who had lost everything in a fire, including his hearing aids,” she recalled. “To at least be able to give him back his hearing was truly amazing.”
“The last patient I saw was a 30-year-old mother with a lifelong hearing loss,” she continued. “She had been wearing the same Phonak hearing aids for more than 15 years. Their casing had started to crack, but when she showed them to me, she cradled them like they were the most precious things.
“I tested her and found she had a profound hearing loss. We were able to fit her with some donated aids that worked with her existing earmolds. When I turned them on, she started crying. ‘You sound different,’ she said. I was worried she was referring to the switch from analog to digital hearing aids. But it turned out she meant I sounded different from other people. She had never been able to distinguish one voice from another, let alone female voices from male.
“Then she placed her hand on her chest and said, ‘I can hear myself!’ and explained that she had only ever been able to feel herself speak before. Everyone in the room was in tears when she remembered her two young sons at home and exclaimed, ‘I can’t wait to get home and hear my boys!’”
Both volunteers called the mission a humbling experience. “Everyone was just so welcoming and appreciative,” said Mariano. “After seeing everything Red Bird does entirely through donations and volunteers, you can’t help but share in that same giving spirit.”