June 2021 Houston Chronicle

Sullivan and Fazakerly Coreen Fazakerly meets with Dr. J. Connor Sullivan at his office, Friday, May 7, 2021, at the Baylor Medicine Jamail Specialty Care Center in Houston. Fazakerly received her cochlear implant earlier this year from Dr. J. Connor Sullivan, who received his cochlear in his first year of college. 

Listening carefully to patients is part of the job description for nurse practitioner Coreen Fazakerly. But for years she couldn’t always hear them. Fazakerly, a Kingwood resident, found other ways to connect with patients. She started to read lips and pick up on body language. And she became more attuned to the environment. “I started listening deeper, to hear in different ways,” she said. “As humans, we have the ability to adapt, and I did that.”

Fazakerly, 63, started experiencing hearing loss in high school. The noisy cafeteria, the clattering of trays and cacophony of conversation made it difficult to hear a conversation across the table.

“But I didn’t acknowledge it,” Fazakerly said. In her 20s, she would go out with friends and had to lean in to hear them. When her nursing career brought her to Houston in 1984, she was faced with a similar noisy environment — the ICU, with beeping monitors and sounding alarms.

Fazakerly realised her hearing was affecting her choices: She had wanted to be a helicopter nurse but decided against it, knowing she would not be able to hear voices over the noise. Finally, a co-worker insisted Fazakerly have her hearing tested, saying, “I came up behind you and you didn’t hear me.” “I had been in denial at that point,” Fazakerly said. “I turned around and said, ‘You’re absolutely right. I’m going to go have my hearing tested. It’s time.’”

Fazakerly discovered that she has sensorineural hearing loss. She could hear low-range sounds normally, but she struggled in the high range. At that point, her hearing loss was not too severe, and she opted to have a hearing aid in only one ear. Later, she learned that the one hearing aid took over, leaving the other ear to quickly lose its function. By age 30, Fazakerly had bilateral hearing aids and was constantly going in for checkups and to have the devices readjusted.

“I had a very thick file,” said Fazakerly, who tried both analog, then digital, hearing aids. Still, her hearing continued to diminish.

When one of her two sons spoke, she had to drop what she was doing, go into their room and listen raptly to understand what they were saying. About two years ago, her audiologist told her, “You’re reaching the point when a cochlear implant is in your future.” “I thought, I’m coping. I’m doing fine,” Fazakerly recalled. “I didn’t want to embrace it at first.”

Being in the medical field, she knew that advancements were made all the time and wanted to wait. By the fall of 2019, Fazakerly changed her mind. A seminar at Baylor College of Medicine that focused on cochlear implants helped her make the decision. “I couldn’t deny it anymore,” Fazakerly said. “I was having more and more trouble hearing.” Even with the volume turned all the way up, voices on a phone call were hard to discern. “People got used to texting me, because I couldn’t hear on the phone,” she said. But her biggest motivators were her three grandchildren. “I couldn’t hear their voices,” she said. “I wanted to be able to hear what they were trying to tell me.”

Connecting with Dr. J. Connor Sullivan, an audiologist at Baylor College of Medicine, also influenced her choice. Sullivan also had a cochlear implant — and had his own experience with hearing loss dating back to his early childhood. “There’s a lot I don’t have to explain to him because he already understands,” Fazakerly said. “You can read and research but never have the lived experience. It definitely makes a difference to have Dr. Sullivan doing this.”

Sullivan was only 4 years old when his kindergarten teacher noticed he wasn’t following directions, and his mother, Michelle Webb, made a doctor’s appointment. “That’s how they found it,” Sullivan said. “It was a shock to everyone.” Still, he had a team of experts who helped him get hearing aids and learn to listen and talk. He was diagnosed with an enlarged vestibular aqueduct, and progressive hearing loss, which would worsen over time. Whenever it was necessary, Sullivan’s doctor would increase the volume on his hearing aids.

Then, at age 19, during his first year at the University of Oklahoma, the sound stopped completely.

“I thought my hearing aids were broken,” Sullivan recalled. He eventually learned about cochlear implants, an option for severe hearing loss or when hearing aids no longer work. Before having his surgery, Sullivan watched videos on YouTube that documented the moment when others could first hear when their cochlear implants were activated.

Finally, on Jan. 5, 2011, it was his turn. Sullivan clearly remembers his audiologist counting “one, two, three” as he slowly turned his cochlear implant up. Suddenly, his eyes lit up. He could hear.

“There’s an adjustment period,” he said. “It takes a while for your brain to get used to what you’re hearing.” Sullivan listened to music playing at the mall. He noticed a baby crying down the hall.

“It’s almost indescribable how different it is,” he said. After another semester of college, he switched out of his theatre major to become an audiologist. “Getting a cochlear implant changed my life, and I would have a cool story to share with patients,” he said.

Fazakerly had a similar adjustment period after her first cochlear implant in January 2020.

“Your brain has to hear differently,” she said. “It’s a totally different type of sound. Also, having worn hearing aids for so many years, I was also used to a higher volume of sound. I had to learn to process sound in a new way.” By August, she decided to have the second cochlear implant. “The second one was a breeze,” Fazakerly said. “My brain was already used to it.”

Now, she delights in hearing a bird sing and, especially, her grandchildren’s voices. “I’m thrilled to be able to have a conversation on the phone,” she said. “It’s so wonderful to be able to hear words.” Her speech also became clearer, as she heard more distinctly.

Her hearing loss had been such a slow, progressive process that she did not realise all the little sounds she was missing. Fazakerly recalls listening to the patter of rain on her roof. “I forgot what that sounded like,” she said. And for the first time, she could hear her fountain by the back door.

“I’m looking forward to the next chapter of my life,” she said. “I encourage people to do it sooner rather than later.”

Getting a cochlear implant can be a difficult decision, Sullivan explained. “It’s permanent; it’s not something you can take out,” he said. “But for me, it wasn’t hard.” He wanted to hear again — and he wanted to help others when faced with their own challenging decisions about hearing. Sullivan earned his bachelor’s degree in communication disorders from the University of Oklahoma, then his doctorate of audiology from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. He served a residency at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, before moving to Houston to be with his wife, Stevie Sullivan, who is also an audiologist and was training at the Center for Hearing and Speech at the time. They earned their doctorates together — and were married last October. Stevie Sullivan is now an audiologist at UT Physicians. Both are passionate about their work, Sullivan said. “What gets me up every day is knowing that you can help someone hear better and connect more with their families,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

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