KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Rattling silverware, clanking cups and the pitter-patter of water splashing off plates isn't exactly music to the ears, but it's a sink-side symphony Abondance Kibadi hasn't always had the opportunity to fully appreciate. The Western Michigan University student is experiencing it all now at his Dining Services job after receiving some new hardware: high-tech hearing aids.
"They make me feel confident," says Kibadi, a student from the Democratic Republic of Congo with plans to study biomedical sciences and follow in his father's footsteps as a surgeon. His hearing loss has been present since he was a child, but a collaborative effort between Western's Unified Clinics, Sindecuse Health Center, the Student Academy of Audiology and hearing solutions company Phonak has given him new hope for success. "I'm able to hear and understand conversations more clearly, and (the hearing aids) also help me to hear myself. It's really changed my life."
Growing up, Kibadi struggled to hear teachers and was often accused of not paying attention in class. In reality, he couldn't hear the directions he was being given. But it wasn't until he traveled to the United States to pursue his studies that his condition was diagnosed.
"I was not able to hear what (my CELCIS instructor) was saying in class, and face masks (due to COVID-19 precautions) made it even more difficult. So I called Sindecuse Health Center to make an appointment for a hearing test," he says. It confirmed what he had known for years: Kibadi has significant hearing loss in both ears, likely caused by premature birth or a severe case of malaria when he was young.
Sindecuse connected Kibadi with the Charles Van Riper Language, Speech and Hearing Clinic at the Unified Clinics, where he began working with Dr. Alyssa Eminhizer, undergraduate program coordinator for Western's Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences and clinical faculty specialist-audiologist. She was able to find some hearing aids the clinic could loan to Kibadi while also working to get him a pair of his own.
"A lot of times, people think hearing aids are too expensive and they're not going to be an option for them," Eminhizer says. "But (at Unified Clinics), we have additional funding resources, or we can pull from resources in the community we can connect people with. So there are options and we're willing to work with anyone who needs help."
The hearing aids Kibadi eventually received cost about $4,000. Eminhizer worked with the manufacturer, Phonak, to get the price down to $2,300. Kibadi's family paid $300 and Western's Student Academy of Audiology (SAA), which Eminhizer is the faculty advisor for, stepped up to cover the remaining $2,000.
"It was really neat to see all of these pieces coming together to help," Eminhizer says.
The SAA is always collecting donations for its general fund which will then be used to help those in need of hearing aids or hearing services. Contact information is available on their Facebook page.
Western's audiology program is unique in that it provides clinical experience to graduate students from the start. Some of those students have been working with Kibadi in the clinic, performing basic audiologic care and teaching him how to use his new, state-of-the-art hearing aids.
"Hearing aids can adjust to the environment with artificial intelligence technology to help the person wearing them, but they are limited in the clarity they can provide," says Erin Augustyniak, a doctoral student from St. Joseph, Michigan. "We have our ears, but we really listen with our brains. We can turn up the volume, but if that neural signal is still distorted, the sound is still going to be distorted as it makes its way through the auditory system."
It can take the brain a while to acclimate to environmental sounds. The process is something Augustyniak is familiar with: She was diagnosed with congenital, mild to moderate bilateral sensorineural hearing loss when she was 5 years old. Her own personal journey with audiology inspired her to make it her career path. Augustyniak says she was 10 before she saw another person wearing hearing aids. She battled the stigma of hearing loss for many years.
"I was in eighth grade when my own audiologist said, 'You can do whatever you put your mind to; you could even be an audiologist.' I didn't realize anyone thought I was smart enough to go to college," she says. In fact, she believes she's a better clinician because of her hearing loss. "Young people now are having their hearing loss identified much earlier, but they're still going to go through that same stigma. I think it gives a little peace of mind that I literally understand what they're going through. It's not just empathizing; I have been in their shoes and I always will be."
Kibadi says Augustyniak's encouragement helped him to overcome his own reservations about using hearing aids.
"She shared with me her experiences, how her hearing loss started and how hearing aids made her life much better," he says.
In addition to making it much easier to understand his instructors in his English as a second language classes, which are necessary for him to enter the biomedical sciences program, Kibadi says the hearing aids also help him with his passion: music.
"I’m able to hear and make the correct sound without a tuner and they increased my ability of playing guitar. They improved many areas of my life," says Kibadi. "It's a blessing."
Augustyniak says it's been "an honor" to work with him on his journey at Western.
"He is so graceful in how he has navigated his hearing loss identification and adjustment to life with hearing aids," says Augustyniak. "When working with Abondance, I feel a sense of hope for the world. He's just so kind and honest—that's a rare thing nowadays. He's going to do some really great things in life."
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