On Thursday, Sept. 17, the Hear the World Foundation honored the pediatric audiology program at UNC Hospitals with its Richard Seewald Award, a distinction given annually to recognize an exemplary program specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of hearing loss in children
In her welcoming remarks, Janet Hadar, UNC Hospitals’ vice president of operations, stated that few centers offer the type of specialized comprehensive hearing care that infants and young children with hearing loss require.
“Many families are willing to travel some distance to access the specialized care that we provide for children with hearing loss,” Hadar said.
For many in the room, the ceremony also served as a joyful reunion.
Richard Seewald, PhD, the award’s namesake—an internationally renowned audiologist and professor emeritus in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Western Ontario—started the event with high praise for UNC’s program.
“Our foundation unanimously felt that we could not be more proud to present this award to UNC,” Seewald said. “UNC is a world-class center, and my heart felt congratulations go out to you for everything that you’ve done.”
This was not Seewald’s first visit to Chapel Hill. Ten years ago, he collaborated with pediatric audiology program director, Patricia Roush, AuD, on a video designed to model best practices from UNC to other medical centers across the country and the world. Three of the children who appeared in that video as toddlers were back at UNC to speak at the award ceremony.
Greensboro, N.C., ninth grader, Collin Tastet, who was born with moderate to severe hearing loss and fitted for hearing aids at 8 weeks of age, told the audience about his extracurricular pursuits.
“I enjoy music and am currently in the marching band, on the drum line and a member of my school’s marching band,” Collin said. “I also love sports like football, basketball and Tae Kwon Do.”
Rachel Skergan, a 12-year-old middle school student from Raleigh, N.C., told the crowd, “My cochlear implant means the world to me.”
The accomplished dancer, who was born with severe to profound hearing loss and received a cochlear implant at UNC at 10 months old, will perform this year as part of the Raleigh City Ballet’s production of the Nutcracker. She said she loves school and her teachers and also expressed passions for listening to music, drawing, and reading.
“When I was younger, I would read out loud, and I think that really helped develop my speech,” Rachel said.
She spoke of living a life typical of other children her age.
“I have great friends who all know about my hearing loss,” she said. “They never make fun of me for it, though, which is really nice.”
Self-proclaimed tomboy and Cary, N.C., seventh grader, Ani Khachadourian, shared comical stories of inadvertent eavesdropping on teachers who forget to turn off the transmitter that sends their voices directly to her hearing aids for amplification.
The exceptional soccer player—who was fitted for hearing aids at 2 months old—talked of being invited to participate in the Olympic Soccer Developmental Program and traveling with her Capital Area Soccer League team to tournaments across the Southeast. She said her hearing aids have not slowed her down on the soccer field—but that they are quite useful in providing moments of respite during quarrels with her siblings.
“Once in a while, if me and my brother and sister are arguing, I will just turn my hearing aids off and nod like I know what they’re saying,” Ani said, drawing a roar of laughter from the audience.
Harold Pillsbury, MD, FACS, Thomas J. Dark Distinguished Professor of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery and chair, Department of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery, called the day a “landmark event.”
“Everything we do is about giving children opportunities, and in these children, you see the great results of that work,” Pillsbury said.
In addition to the award presentation, the occasion served as a celebration for the successes of the pediatric audiology program over the last 15 years. In 1999, the North Carolina legislature mandated newborn hearing screening for all infants, and the UNC pediatric audiology team stepped up to develop a comprehensive program that now provides service to children throughout North Carolina and beyond.
The team’s seven pediatric audiologists see more than 13,000 patient visits per year and, in the last 15 years, have served more than 1,500 infants and children with permanent bilateral hearing loss and more than 300 with unilateral hearing loss. The team works closely with the Children’s Cochlear Implant Center at UNC, also highly regarded among the best in the nation.
Roush emphasized the program’s focus on screening all newborns within one month of birth and said that in 2014, 96 percent of the more than 3,700 babies born at UNC Medical Center were screened within that timeframe.
Roush’s team of audiologists — Mallory Baker, AuD, Shana Jacobs, AuD, Sarah Martinho, AuD, Laurel Okulski, AuD, and Jill Ritch, AuD — took turns at the podium describing services they provide to families and developments in the field, from advanced screening tests to colorful options that allow children to customize their hearing aid devices.
Dr. Seewald summed up the impact of what he called the “gold standard of care” provided by UNC Pediatric Audiology, gesturing to guests of honor, Collin, Rachel, and Ani.
“They’re living the lives you dreamed for them when you went into this work, and of that you should be exceptionally proud.”