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Today's Family Magazine

Sounds of Life Hearing Center helps families communicate, thrive

Oct 29, 2018 02:47PM

Dr. Sarah Curtis examines 3½-year-old Ava Hersman with an otoscope.

By Nina Polien Light

With no history of hearing impairment in either of their families, Christie and Josh Hersman of Kirtland were shocked when their daughter, Ava, failed a newborn hearing screening.  They soon learned that preemies, like their daughter who was born six weeks early and began life in the neonatal intensive care unit, are at a higher risk for hearing loss.

At one month of age, Ava underwent the more advanced auditory brain response (ABR) test, which revealed bilateral sensory neural hearing loss, meaning the little girl had permanent hearing loss in both ears.  Determined to help Ava, the Hersmans took her to see audiologist Dr. Sarah Curtis, who fit Ava with hearing aids and referred the then-infant to a speech therapist.

“Dr. Curtis interacted with Ava so wonderfully, talked with her and played with her,” says Ava’s mother. “She had to put a mold in Ava’s ears to fit her (for hearing aids), so she picked a sparkly pink mold to make it fun.  She also taught my husband and me how to be an advocate for Ava’s hearing loss.”

The combination of properly fitted hearing aids, speech therapy and a little coaching from Dr. Curtis have normalized Ava’s life.

“You would never know Ava has hearing loss,” her mother says of the now three-and-a-half-year-old.  “She’s totally on track for speech and language development and is even advanced in some areas.  She also goes to a typical preschool.”

Success stories, like Ava’s, are the reason Dr. Curtis is so passionate about early screening and intervention.  The board-certified audiologist, who recently opened the family-centered Sounds of Life Hearing Center in Concord Township, says all babies should be screened by one month of age.

“If they fail, hearing loss should be formally diagnosed by three months and they should be wearing hearing aids by six months,” she says.  “If they are an otherwise typically developed child and we do that, they will be mainstreamed and doing perfectly fine by the time they start kindergarten.”

According to the American Academy of Audiology, between three and six of every 1,000 newborns has significant hearing problems.  More than 95 percent of newborns who are born deaf have parents with normal hearing.  The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association website cites a Dutch study revealing 32 of every 1,000 premature babies in NICUs will incur a hearing loss.

Sadly, Dr. Curtis says, educational, psychological and social difficulties arise when hearing loss goes undetected and untreated.  Several studies reveal children with unilateral hearing loss (one ear has diminished hearing) have a 10 times higher rate of grade failure. Straining to hear can cause fatigue, especially in the classroom where many children with hearing loss are improperly identified as having behavioral issues.  The inability to hear a teacher and decipher meaning from lessons can affect a child’s confidence.  Further, the child may feel socially isolated, even at home.

“It’s a huge advantage for families to sit around the table sharing their daily experiences, but that is made more difficult when people have hearing loss,” says Dr. Curtis, who treats children and adults.  “Background noise competes with speech and a lot of people nod and agree to things that they don’t know what they’re nodding and agreeing to.”

This scenario may occur whether it is a child, parent or grandparent with hearing loss, so Dr. Curtis works with families to enhance their interactions and maximize their well-being.  If a parent has hearing loss or is deaf, Dr. Curtis may recommend installing smoke detectors with strobe lights or baby monitors with blinking lights.

Hearing loss can present in different forms and at any age. Unilateral hearing loss means one ear is fully functioning and the other has some degree of hearing loss or is totally dead.  Bilateral loss, such as Ava’s, refers to diminished hearing in both ears.  Babies may be born with hearing loss or develop it from early antibiotic use.  Youngsters with chronic fluid or wax in their ears or frequent ear infections may not be diagnosed with hearing loss immediately.  Approximately 12 percent of 6- to 16-year-olds develop noise-induced hearing loss, according to the American Academy of Audiology.

Still others may have an auditory processing disorder.  These individuals have normal hearing, but difficulty deciphering what they hear.

“This can present separately from or in combination with attention deficit disorder, autism spectrum disorder or learning disabilities,” Dr. Curtis says.  “Sometimes kids can have what looks like an attention problem, but it’s really problems with processing what they’re hearing. It’s a tricky diagnosis.  Not a lot of providers do this testing, but I’m excited to do this for the community.”

Dr. Curtis says audiology is her “soulmate profession” because it combines so many of her passions.  She earned an undergraduate in psychology, which helps her understand the connection between hearing loss and mental health—whether in children or adults.  As a teenager, she spent summers working with special-needs children at Camp Sue Osborn in Burton.  She plays the flute and sings, so she is naturally curious about the interplay of sounds.  She also has an interest in technology, which, of course, she uses daily in her audiology practice to test hearing-related issues and to fit and adjust hearing aids.  She also performs evaluations for cochlear implants.

“It’s serendipitous that I fell into audiology,” she says. “Hearing is an interesting sense.  When you have trouble seeing, you know you can’t see the TV, but you don’t always know you aren’t hearing what you aren’t hearing.  Even for adults it can be difficult to recognize hearing loss, but I’ve seen kids who have passed school hearing screenings, yet they have hearing loss.  It’s so important to get an evaluation from an audiologist who is trained to know where to look and what to look for.”   

To learn more about Sounds of Life Hearing Center, call Dr. Curtis at 440-579-4085, email her at [email protected], or visit https://soundsoflifehc.com/home.  They are located at 8007 Auburn Road in Concord Twp.