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Hearing Voices For The Very First Time

Oct. 18, 2004

My mother was told when I was 16 months old that I was deaf. The official diagnosis many years later was Usher Syndrome Type I, a genetic disease that causes deafness, retinitis pigmentosa (vision limitations) and balance problems.

Upon hearing my diagnosis, my mother prayed for direction. As she did, she stumbled upon an evangelist preaching on television and was so moved by the message, she committed her life anew to Christ. As it turned out, I would be my mother's saving grace, and this would be the first of many examples of how God worked through my situation to bless and enrich lives.

When I was very young, my parents took me from Austin, where we lived, to San Antonio weekly to learn a language system that included English signing and voicing/lip-reading. I began attending a school with a deaf education program at age 3 and gradually mainstreamed through my elementary years. In my sophomore year of high school, I mainstreamed in English, after my parents advocated for me. My deaf education teachers had held me back, thinking I was not intellectually capable. The next year, I went into honors English, where I stayed until I graduated.

I attended Baylor University. I received a Business Law Student of the Year award, graduated magna cum laude with a BBA and a master's of taxation. I became a certified public accountant, passing the exam on my first sitting.

Throughout school, I also enjoyed many extracurricular activities. In high school, I ran cross country and track and held Student Council offices. At Baylor, I worked part time, held an office in Delta Delta Delta and was involved in Beta Alpha Psi.

My life has gone well. I live alone and have learned to cope with my challenges. For instance, I do not drive because of my poor vision, but I live close enough to my work that I can walk, and I buy groceries online. I spent two years on the tax staff with Arthur Andersen LLP and then a year with KPMG. Now I am a commission accountant for KPMG LLP.

In January 2003, just a few weeks before my 26th birthday, I chose to have cochlear implant surgery. Electrodes were implanted in my cochlea to replace my genetically missing cilia, thus enabling me to hear. Also, a magnet was surgically placed behind my ear, where a speech processor (which is like a hearing aid but for cochlear implant recipients) is attached.

It may be hard for others to understand how this procedure has changed my life. Before, I had absolutely no hearing, so I had no idea what hearing would be like. I am like a baby learning how to speak (using my diaphragm instead of my throat) and how to hear.

I had never heard a baby's cry, running water, music, snoring, whispering. Each new sound was a discovery -- not only an auditory one, but a cognitive one. At first after the hook-up, I could hear only distinct sounds such as talking (not words yet), moving hangers, shuffling paper, footsteps, a keyboard being played. I still could not hear traffic, water, music or constant, monotonous sounds.

I remember the first time I heard a baby cry. I was shopping, and I heard this sound I did not recognize. I heard it again several times and decided I didn't like it; I was getting annoyed! Later, in my church's library, while reading, I heard it again and understood for the first time it was a baby's cry.

One morning, when my parents were staying with me, again I heard a noise I did not recognize. How funny to learn it was my father snoring. That same morning, I also learned my mother's whisper. It was a joyful discovery because that sound and the sound of leaves rustling are the quietest sounds, which I was told I wouldn't be able to hear. Another day, I recognized a door creaking. I had learned that sound from watching a cartoon movie that showed sounds in subtitles.

I continue to make progress. I attend 45-minute sessions three times a week with a speech therapist and work independently on my voice and auditory exercises. Now I can hear running water, a vacuum cleaner, soft and low sounds, a television. I am beginning to find sounds I like and dislike because now I have a basis for sound comparison.

And I can hear music. Days after my cochlear implant, my younger sister gave me a music box on my 26th birthday in February. It had been hers as a child, and every time she listened to it, she would pray that I would be healed of my deafness. When I pressed my ear to the music box, I could barely hear the soft, soft sound. Then, at Christmas that same year, after not having listened to the music box since February, I listened to it again, and to my shock, I could hear it very clearly.

I still use alerting devices at night when I do not wear my speech processor. These devices vibrate whenever a phone rings, somebody knocks on the door or a bed alarm or weather alert goes off.

Throughout my life, I have shown that my deafness does not impede my success. God created me and endowed me with abilities, gifts and skills to use through his strength for his glory. With the cochlear implant, I also have discovered new ways to enjoy and experience God. When I hear thunder, I feel God's awesome presence and sense his incredible power. When I hear leaves rustling, I sense his praiseworthy sweetness, serenity and beauty. At a church service, I hear the pastor's voice change, and I feel his emphasis, his emotions.

At one church service, I cried with joy when a man was baptized. The congregation clapped, and my joy was intensified. At this overwhelming moment, I thanked God that I had been born and remained deaf until I was 26 years old. It did not hold me back, and now upon being able to hear, I have a deeper appreciation of and relationship with God and Jesus Christ.


Johnson, BBA and MTA '00, is a commission accountant for KPMG LLP in Dallas.

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