Mediaplanet: What was it like growing up deaf? What were some social challenges? Was it tough in school?

Sarah Churman: It’s kind of a double sided coin with most things, because one side of that is it was all that I had ever known; the way I function, how I perceive the world around me, how I interact with the world around me. It was all I had ever known, so for me, I just did the best of my ability. When I was really young, I didn’t notice that it affected anything. It wasn't until I got older, high school and beyond, that I realized how hard it was and what I was missing out on, or how it was affecting those around me.

When you're young, you’re kind of oblivious. You’re in your own little bubble, but as you get older, you try to interact more, do things more, have friends, and do things like that. For the most part, people aren't aware of something when there isn't a visual reminder for them. People see me coming to school and doing "normal” things that "normal" people do, but they don't realize that I have to work so hard to compensate for something that I'm lacking in.

In the event that you did mention that you had a problem, or that you didn't catch something, or that you didn't understand, it seemed like often times people weren't as sympathetic as you would like. Because it's not a visual reminder, they don't remind themselves to be empathetic. Going to school and things like that, you're constantly having to remind teachers that you need to read their lips, or if their back is to you, you're missing out on so much. It's kind of like watching a movie with the sound turned off. You have to piece together something through the imagery and the plot, but you miss out on so much little information, so I was having to constantly ask for help with the little information, or having people repeat things or asking for special notes or things like that.

MP: Was it difficult to get a job before the surgery?

SC: My first job was waiting tables and I did that for a couple years. For the most part, waitresses are just a couple of feet from you. You're looking at them, you're placing your order, so I was able to get by without having to let people know, but the flip side to that, is I didn't have a lot of people I would have to say “I'm sorry” to or “repeat that,” or that type of thing. Being deaf, you develop a routine and can sense flow of conversation. You have a way of setting the conversation up so that you get the information without the people realizing that they're repeating something or that you're not getting something. I usually didn't pull out the old,  "I'm hearing impaired, help me out" unless I absolutely had to.  

MP: How did the new hearing implant technology better your family life? How did it benefit your relationships with your family and your friends?

SC: My family… we’re pretty tight knit anyway, but obviously when you live with someone or have someone in your family with a disability of any kind, it's all you've ever known. You develop a routine. Everyone around me was always really quick to alert others. I never did anything by myself, because I constantly needed help. When you’re younger, you’re more worried about what people think, so I was nervous to do anything, then I met Sloan, my husband.

People in several interviews ask (Sloan), “Did you ever think twice?” and he’s always quick to say he never thought twice about it. To him, it was just like somebody wearing glasses. Once we got closer and the longer he was with me, he realized that I did require a lot of assistance. People are always joking that he's been my interpreter, my bodyguard and everything else for fifteen years. So for him, it just became second nature, much like it did with my parents and other people in my family. We developed kinda like a new routine. 

MP: The video of you hearing for the first time is incredibly moving. Can you tell us a little bit about what you were feeling at that moment?

SC: It was just a double edged sword, because half of you is so excited, you want to hurry up and experience it. But the flip side to that was that I was scared to death. What if for some reason it wasn't going to work? What if I didn’t like it? It was riding on my mother in law's retirement savings that she cashed out. It was a lot of pressure and a lot of emotion leading up to that moment. I was so nervous sitting in that chair. After all this time, I am still not able to come up with a good description of how it felt to hear for the first time. The best way that I can explain it is before anything was said, before any noise was made, I knew that it was going to work. It was just this ultimate clarity.

So she turned it on and said, "It’s on" and I kind of gasp. I set the remote down and I realized that I heard the sound of the remote being set down on the counter. Then I realized I can hear myself breathing. My tongue was moving around in my mouth, I was swallowing. All those noises were so loud. Then I started crying and that sounded weird. It was just a huge jumble of emotion. It was just complete relief, because I realized that it did work and I did like it. 

"People see me coming to school and doing "normal” things that "normal" people do, but they don't realize that I have to work so hard to compensate for something that I'm lacking in."

MP: Were you completely deaf prior to surgery?

SC: Prior to surgery, I had about an 85 bilateral decibel loss. So they gave a good example of a chainsaw running full throttle. Before the implant, with no hearing aids in, it would take a chainsaw running at full throttle for me to register sound. Even though I could register some sound, I still had no idea what it was or where it was coming from. When you add hearing aids to the mix, it would just amplify everything.  Hearing aids help you to realize that there was a noise if it was loud enough, but it was still up to you to find out where that noise was coming from, what that noise is, should I be paying attention to someone, things like that. 

With the implant, I still don’t have perfect hearing. The average person walks around with about 10-15 decibel hearing loss just from normal wear and tear on our bodies. I’m at about 30-35 decible hearing loss. So I’m still below an average person, but because it’s so much more than I've ever known, it seems really loud to me. They say everybody's different, so I don’t know at what point I’ll ever completely get used to it.

MP: After your surgery, what was music like for you?  What was it like really hearing music for the first time?

SC: Growing up, my dad played and wrote music. I grew up and he and his friends would play until late at night and I always enjoyed music. I just enjoyed it in the only way I knew how, which was feeling the vibrations.  I would crank the music up really loud and just feel the vibrations. I developed a rhythm and a way to enjoy it. So after the surgery, I mistakenly assumed that music would sound great right away. That was one of the major disappointments when I first had it turned on, because we got in the car after the surgery and I was anxious.  I couldn’t wait to just turn the radio on and enjoy it like everyone else. 

So I turned the radio on and it was either a Katy Perry or a Lady Gaga song, I don’t remember who it was, but it sounded awful. It sounded horrible. I was sitting over there and I was trying not to cry because I didn’t want to admit that the device wasn’t "perfect." Because at the time, I just assumed everything would be perfect all at once. So I was sitting in the truck and we were driving to dinner, and Sloan realized I looked like I was lost in thought, and he said to me "Whats wrong? Does the radio not sound ok?" I started crying and said "It sounds awful!  It sounds tingy. I can’t understand what they’re saying." I believe it had something to do with the frequency and things like that. That, they were able to fix. It wasn’t until 4 weeks after the surgery I was able to fully enjoy the radio. 

MP: Do you feel that these new innovative technologies will benefit everybody, both directly and indirectly affected by hearing loss?  How do you see the world 15 to 20 years down the road?

SC: We've come so far just in the last 15 years. We have robotic limbs, we have people finding cures for things. Science and technology are constantly evolving. I read something the other day about an internal cochlear implant that they're trying to get on the market. I can’t even imagine where we will be in 15 years. I can only see it continuing to better us and better those who want it. Obviously the deaf community is split down the middle between those who don’t want technology's help and those who do. I can only see it getting better and better. Not just for people who are hearing impaired, but for everyone with any type of impairment or disability.