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Feb 2018 telegraph herald.com

On an early December afternoon in 2016, Melissa Kuhl sat nervously in an examination room at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. One month prior, doctors had installed a cochlear implant in her right ear. Kuhl’s boyfriend, Austin Jungers, was among a select group of loved ones by Melissa’s side on that day. As the tests concluded, he leaned over to Melissa and asked if she could hear what he was saying. He then dropped to a knee and uttered four words that will never be forgotten. “Will you marry me?”

To Austin, the timing was less about Melissa’s enhanced hearing abilities and more about the significance of the moment. “She was really scared about (the surgery),” he recalled. “It was a new journey for her to experience and a whole new life, basically. Regardless of how it was going to turn out, because nothing is guaranteed with this, I wanted to make sure she knew I would be by her side for it and we would work together on it.” Melissa said, “Yes,” and the two were married Dec. 29, 2017, at Hotel Julien Dubuque. They now share a Dubuque home with their 3-year-old Golden Retriever, Odin.

Austin and melissaThroughout much of her childhood in North Liberty, Iowa, Melissa experienced about 40 percent hearing loss and made do with the use of hearing aids. Barb Van Rheenen, an advocate from the Area Education Agency, informed Melissa about the possibility of getting cochlear implants when she was in fifth grade. Van Rheenen broached the topic again when Melissa was at Iowa City West High School. But Melissa was reluctant to embrace the possibility. “I dismissed it at first,” she said. “I wasn’t really open to the idea and I felt like I was getting along OK with my hearing aids.”

Melissa and Austin met through mutual friends in 2012 when they were attending Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids. They started dating later that year. Austin, a Dubuque native, returned to his hometown a couple years later and Melissa soon followed. She attended the University of Dubuque and graduated in 2016.

It was around that time that her hearing impairment had begun to reach a tipping point.

Melissa was becoming increasingly reliant on others to communicate. Austin would often help fill in the blanks during social events and would order for her at restaurants. “Things really started to take their toll,” Melissa said. “I was really struggling to hear people and socially I was having a harder time keeping up with conversation, especially with more than two people. At work sometimes, I would be given direction for a project and I would mishear something or would completely miss something.”

By the time of her operation, Melissa had lost 85 percent of her hearing in her right ear and about 75 percent in her left. As the issues worsened, her thoughts returned to the information provided by Van Rheenen many years ago. Her search for a solution led her to University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Camille Dunn is director of the cochlear implant program at the Iowa City hospital, where about 2,500 cochlear implant procedures have been completed. Melissa received her cochlear implant on Veterans Day 2016. After the operation, she had to rest and heal for one month before the implant was activated. Only Melissa’s father had been told about the proposal before it took place. Melissa said she was shocked when she heard the question. “It was special and it was personal,” she recalled. “To me, it was important to not see it coming.”

For those receiving cochlear implants, it can take three to six months to fully realise the benefits.

Melissa said her hearing has become “more crisp” since the surgery, noting that she can now hear things on a deeper and more detailed level. The improvement has been so profound that she is planning to have the same operation on her left ear.

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