Late Sunday night, we rolled into Dalat, a gem of a little city tucked away in the hills of rural Vietnam. The fresh, clean air and mild temperatures were a welcome change from the chaos and heat of Ho Chi Minh. French-inspired townhouses line the winding streets and manicured gardens of bright poinsettias and dahlias are everywhere. Crops of strawberries, coffee, and potatoes carpet the landscape alongside floral nurseries in the hill villages overlooking the downtown core. There’s a laid back vibe here. The people are friendly and the pace is slow. Cafes around town invite casual conversation and strung-up hammocks suggest afternoon respite. My morning run alongside the lake rewarded me with distractions of birds fishing and horses grazing. This is a tourist destination, yet Dalat’s soul is still very much alive.
The Lam Dong School for the Hearing Impaired was our home base during our program in Dalat. Two other schools for the deaf sent teachers and parents to join in our training and audiology efforts. When we arrived at the school in the morning of a bluebird day, we were warmly received by the headmaster and deputy director over a cup of tea before heading upstairs to a sun-splashed room filled with about 30 teachers. The energy and anticipation was palpable and with our own team’s excitement and passion, it was a feel good start to our event. After introductions, we split up into two groups…Jane and Joanne headed to a small audiology room while Judy, Lea, and Charlotte led instruction in the main meeting room.
The general agenda called for Judy, Lea, and Charlotte to lecture and lead practicum on language development and auditory-verbal techniques to early intervention and kindergarten teachers, and provide consultations to families. Meanwhile, Jane and Joanne provided training to those who do audiology at the schools about best practices. The schools used our guidelines to identify children who needed new hearing aids but whose families could not afford them. These children were scheduled appointments with Jane and Joanne for hearing testing and hearing aid fitting from our supply of 95 Solar Ear, Oticon, and Phonak hearing aids. The audiology staffs from the schools sat in on the hearing testing and fitting, and Cat Tuong, a major distributor of hearing instruments, sent along a representative to learn from Jane. Each evening, we had a two-hour family lecture for about 40 parents and teachers covering audiology and spoken language development.
The children filed, wide-eyed and shy, one at a time inside the little audiology room clutching to their parents’ hands or pant legs. All that apprehension magically melted away as Jane would immediately connect with the child whether through words or actions and then work with him or her to test hearing in such a compassionate, endearing way. The child would sit with these BIG earphones on their tiny heads, and would listen oh-so-seriously for the tones that Joanne was ringing in through the audiometer. Jane gave each child her full care and attention, coaching them to respond to the sounds. Al of us in that room were silent cheerleaders during these testing sessions – Vietnamese and American alike. Every time a tone rang out, you could sense the held breaths and the silent “come on, come on” words of hope and encouragement that the child would respond.
The more residual hearing that a child has, the more beneficial the hearing aids will be. Cochlear implants, which are prescribed to those with profound losses, are still rare and cost-prohibitive in countries like Vietnam. Children with severe to profound hearing loss can be fit with hearing aids. But, they will struggle to comprehend speech and will require extensive support from trained teachers and professionals – a commodity in limited supply in Vietnam and something the Global Foundation is working to address.
It felt like a warm embrace every time Joanne would fit hearing aids on a child. The parent’s face of gratitude just said it all.
There were stories within stories too. We had a four year-old boy who needed hearing aids but because the family was poor, he was not attending school. Jane told the teachers she would only fit the child if they promised he would be enrolled. If he didn’t attend, Jane insisted that the hearing aids be returned to us. The teachers agreed to work with the family and Jane fit the child with hearing instruments. I’m hopeful that this little boy is now on a course for a brighter future.
There were difficult situations that just tore at my heart. Jane met me and Thuy in the hallway at one point to explain that the little girl she had just tested was so profoundly deaf that a hearing aid would not benefit at all. What should we do? Should we draw from our precious and limited supply to give to this child when another would benefit more? How do we tell this mother that we cannot give her daughter a hearing aid? The three of us teared up as we battled through that tough decision.
It is one thing to set guidelines for who gets a hearing aid and who does not But when you see the family, see the cute little boy or girl who is about to be denied…well, it just changes you and makes you want to work even harder to fix things. Financing for hearing aids and cochlear implants is not available from the government or health insurance companies in Vietnam. This needs to change. A child who has a hearing loss has nothing wrong with their brains, and with the hearing instruments they need, can go on to lead successful lives in hearing society. In my opinion, to shortchange a child’s potential simply because of lack of access is immoral.