Hearing-impaired teen gets gift of sound

HOUSTON - A Houston teenager gets the gift of hearing after being inspired by a video she watched online.

When Sloan Churman posted a video of his wife, Sarah, having a hearing implant turned on, it was meant to let family and friends see the excitement she experienced hearing her own voice for the first time.

The couple had no way of knowing their private moment would be seen 13 million times. Two of those people watching were Carla Hunt and her daughter, 17-year-old Jacqueline Hardee.

Hardee watched as Sarah Churman cried at the sound of her own voice and had one thought on her mind, "I want it, I want it, I want it."

Hearing impaired since birth, Hardee relied on hearing aids and savvy lip-reading to appear as normal as possible.

"I would pretend nothing was wrong with me and I would pretend I could understand and knew what they were talking about, but I really didn't," said Hardee, a Clear Creek High School senior.

Hardee spent most of her life playing detective in social situations by piecing together what she could read on lips with speaker-like sound coming through her hearing aids. The world was a constant mystery that got harder to navigate as she grew up.

Hardee's friend and fellow volleyball player, Alex Irvine, admitted teenage girls like to talk fast and all at one time. Ariel Froeschl agreed it wasn't easy for Hardee.

"We would have to repeat ourselves because she would not realize we were even having a conversation," said Froeschl, a friend and volleyball teammate.

Hardee said her hearing aids offered the sounds of the world through speakers. The sounds coming through the devices often mixed together and all voices come through as one sound.

"You know who is talking because you know their voice, but she couldn't do that so she would have to turn around to look and see who was talking," said Ashley Smith, Hardee's school friend and fellow volleyball player.

Hardee said other sounds, like wind, were often distorted, while quiet noises, like shoes on the ground, were absent all together.

The thought of having Sarah Churman's "natural" hearing had Hardee's mind racing with possibilities and her mother researching on the Internet. Sarah Churman credited the success to the Esteem implant. But as Hunt was finding out more information, Hardee was already going full-steam ahead.

"One of the volleyball players ran up to me saying, 'Oh Ms. Carla, Ms. Carla, Jackie is getting the Esteem implant just like the woman on the YouTube video.' I was like, well, OK," said Jackie's mother, Carla Hunt.

Five months later in March, Hardee found herself in the same chair Churman had been in while waiting for a single implant in her left ear to be activated. Hardee's family shot video of her experiencing the same thing Churman did.  Hardee said she was shocked hearing her own voice, this time not through a speaker but inside her head.

"My heart dropped when it turned. The moment I have been waiting for my whole life," Hardee said.

Hunt told her daughter she loved her and, for the first time, Hardee heard it in her mother's real voice.

"I wish I had thought of something more profound to say, but the only thing I could think of was to let her know how much I love her. She had never really heard momma say 'I love you,'" Hunt said.

Each implant costs $30,000 plus the expense of testing and medications. None of it is covered by insurance. Hunt said it was money well spent and a gift they feel is truly a miracle.

The surgery is done elsewhere, but the activation is at the Envoy facility in The Woodlands. 

"It just filled up her whole being with her own voice and she had never heard herself before. You could just see it all written on her face," Hunt said.

Hunt said the family is hoping to save up enough money to have the second implant for Hardee this fall.

"Jackie is not the most sentimental, lovey-dovey, kind of person, so watching her cry about it, I cried. I know people who know her cried because we were so happy for her," Smith said.

Hardee said she expected the new hearing to be "cool, but no big deal," but she admitted she didn't know about all the sounds she had been missing.

"She loves the sound of crunching food and the sound her hand makes scratching her leg," Smith said.

Hardee added scratching her head, the sound of shoes on the ground and wind in trees were also sounds that she loves. He mother throws juice in a bottle and jangling earrings to the list of new sounds her daughter is adding to her sound library.

Hardee is not the only one coming to appreciate new sounds. Her friends said even after being in the hearing world their entire lives, watching Hardee discover the little background noises has changed their worlds, too.

"It was really cool the little things we don't think about. It is like new to her and it is cool to like see her experience those little things," Froeschl said.

Jackie compared it to being born all over again.

Copyright 2012 by Click2Houston.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.