Sunday, March 2, 2014

Uncommon strength, uncommon character

Who expects to face a life-changing event when you're just two years old?

Billie Jo (Edmonds) Varner never did.

But one day, very early in her formative years, when the pulse and sounds of the earth are still fresh and alive and mysterious, she came down with a particularly devastating case of rheumatic fever. She recovered, but the fever left her deaf in both ears.

Life changing, indeed.

"The infection damaged the tissue of the ear drums in both ears," said Varner, 44, who works the part-time morning shift in the mail room of a local bank, where I happen to work the afternoon shift.  "All I can remember is when I started going to school, which I guess is at age five, I had to take speech therapy every year. I was with somebody all the time."

Billie Jo Varner can teach us something about character.
Varner was able to hear — and learn — with the help of hearing aids (because of cost, she started off with just one, but was later able to have a second hearing aid for the other ear).

"I can only hear 20 percent, so I was able to hear the sounds and all, and try to work with speaking, but it took 12 years in school to learn," said Varner, who also learned how to sign.

School wasn't a particularly pleasant experience for her. In addition to being taught the standard curriculum, she also had her therapy classes and signing lessons. Every time she turned around, it seemed, she was being taught something. Good if you're a sponge, not so much if you're a child growing up wanting nothing more than to be a child growing up.

"It wasn't easy," Varner concurred. "You get picked on. That was bad. I hated school."

For the next decade or so (she married Eddie Varner 24 years ago — "He's been a blessing to me," said Varner — and the couple have two children, Kala, 20, and Lucas, 18) she made her way through life with the marginal benefit of her hearing aids. Then, about six years ago, when she was in her late 30s, she was told about cochlear implants, which requires a surgical procedure behind the ear to install a high-tech device that enables a deaf person to better understand speech. (see here)

"Somebody told us about (cochlear implants) and we checked it out online," said Varner. "Then we made an appointment to talk to the people you had to talk to about your insurance — about what it will pay and what it won't pay.

"They kept telling us that they couldn't approve it. But we kept looking into it more and I just really wanted it," said Varner, her eyes virtually brimming with excitement as she tells the story. "So we went and talked with them again, and they still said they couldn't approve it."

The cost of a cochlear implant can run anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000, so insurance was a critical issue for her.

"I figured it just wasn't meant to be," said Varner.  "Then, two weeks later, in the mail, we got a letter, and it said it was approved."

Wow. Another life changer.

"God was working on me," smiled Varner. "Yeah, we were all excited. We celebrated. And for something like that, I wasn't even nervous. I was ready to go. Let's get it done, you know?"

Indeed, the procedure was done at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, and life has never been quite the same for her. Her device, located behind her right ear and unseen by a shower of blond hair, has four changeable programs on it, which allows her to either block background noise, or to let her hear sound from a distance (like a preacher in church), or to let her hear when on the phone, or to let her hear music from a radio.

"It's unreal," said Varner.

It's also uncertain — and always will be, I suppose — whether she hears sounds the way you and I do. For example, she has to turn down the volume on the telephone for it to make any sense to her. I have to turn it up. So sound frequencies might be gathered in different ways for her compared to you and me.

At first, she was overwhelmed with the learning curve required in having an implant. When she first came home after the procedure, she complained to her husband that she kept hearing a noise and what was it? "It's the clock," he said. "No, it's not," she replied. "What is it?" So he took the battery out of the clock.

"It was the clock," she smiled.

She never heard the sound of a flushing commode before the implant. Or the sound of crickets.

"It just goes on and on and on," she said.

She currently has only the right-ear implant and would like to have one for the left ear, but again, insurance says one is enough. For now.

Nevertheless, she remains ecstatic.

"There's a big difference from being able to hear only 20 percent. It was always difficult to hear and understand. I always had to be able to read lips. For example, growing up, we didn't have voice captioning on television. I had to try and read lips to watch a show."

The implant also has allowed her speech to improve.

"Because I'm hearing the words better I'm learning to speak better," she said.

Now for my two cents.

I met this woman about three weeks ago. She's a new hire at the bank and so our paths cross for about a half hour each day. In that span I've discovered her to be vital, a quick learner with a sharp sense of humor. I can't imagine what she's endured in her lifetime. Sometimes the biggest challenge of my day is deciding which shirt I'm going to wear. Varner, by contrast, has successfully scaled more challenges than I'll ever care to know.

And while it seems like she's spent her whole life caught in a learning process, she's been a teacher, too, even if she doesn't know it: She has already taught me something about perseverance and strength of character.

Thank you, Billie Jo.

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