Smile wavering, Vincent Feola stepped into the sound-proof booth reluctantly. The 10-year-old was about to get a hearing screening and he wasn’t sure he would like it. But with a little coaxing from audiologist Maria Ortiz and mom Elizabeth, Vincent sat still and took his fingers out of his ears.
“Every patient is different and you have to approach them in a different way, especially kids,” Ortiz says. “The idea is to get a feel for them and make them feel comfortable.”
Ortiz works for the Hearing and Speech Center of Florida (HSCF), a 77-year-old Miami-Dade non-profit that provides hearing screenings as well as speech and other therapy services. This week, the center is providing free screenings to the public in hopes to encourage people who may be concerned about their hearing to get help. Clients from throughout South Florida are welcome.
The free screenings are conducted four times a year and while most of the people who come to get tested are older than Vincent, many have been suffering from hearing loss for a while. (Vincent was lucky. His hearing is fine.)
“Typically the person who comes in is older and they tell me, “I can hear but I don’t understand.’ Or ‘I’m always asking for people to repeat themselves,’” Ortiz adds. “It’s very frustrating and stressful for them.”
Hearing loss affects 10 percent of children and 50 percent of the elderly population. It’s the third leading chronic disability and in children can lead to trouble in school and difficulty acquiring basic social skills. In older adults, it can lead to isolation as seniors pull away from social situations in which they struggle to participate.
The most common ailment Ortiz sees during these screenings is presbycusis, a progressive age-related auditory loss that affects the person’s ability to hear higher frequencies. But she also has come across hearing loss in younger people and sometimes ends up referring patients to ear, nose and throat specialists for congenital problems or ear infections.
Once the severity of the hearing loss is determined, Ortiz also helps patients navigate the wide offerings in hearing devices. Few patients with hearing loss require medical or surgical treatment and can usually function with some form of amplification. Such hearing devices, however, are very expensive and usually not covered by most private insurances or Medicare. And Medicaid will pay for a pair once every three years. But as the largest not-for-profit provider of hearing and speech therapy, HSCF can find discounts for devices and works with a credit card company to offer interest free loans to purchase what is often a several thousand dollar investment.
Rene Veliz of Coral Gables is one of the people HSCF has helped. The 82-year-old has lost about 40 percent of his hearing in both ears, but the first hearing device he bought didn’t last long. A year later he was still missing out on conversations. When he was referred to HSCF, testing showed his hearing loss had grown worse. Staff helped him find devices at a discount, which at $6,300 was still a hefty tab. HSCF, through the state-funded Florida Telecommunications Relay Inc., also provided him with a special amplification phone for free.
“If I couldn’t hear, my life would be totally different,” Veliz says. “I wouldn’t be able to participate in the activities I enjoy.”
Jacqueline de la Fe, a physical therapist, began losing her hearing about 10 years ago, a result of Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear that also affects her balance. Now 50, she says she’s thrilled with her new hearing devices. “I can’t imagine what I would do without them,” she says.
Founded in 1936 as the League for the Hard of Hearing, the center changed its name in 1961 as it expanded its services by adding speech therapy. Over the years, it pioneered the countywide preschool hearing-speech screening program and also added occupational, physical and behavior therapy. The organization screens 2,300 Miami-Dade preschoolers in 70 day-care and preschools every year.
This is one of executive director Beatriz Leon’s favorite programs, one she hopes to expand.
“Too often these children aren’t identified until kindergarten, when they’re not doing well in school,” Leon says. “And by then so much time has been lost.” (With most of the pediatric patients the center sees, the child’s hearing loss is also accompanied by cognitive delays and physical impairments.)
At the preschool screenings, parents are given information for follow up appointments and therapy, if necessary. The services “are A to Z, and everyone is welcome. We’re not saying no to anybody. We want to service everyone who needs it,” Leon adds.
The work is hard, but the results rewarding.
“You cry sometimes when you see a child who’s worked and worked and worked, and he finally tells the parent, ‘I want juice,’ Leon says. Those kind of aha moments we get a lot here.”