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A lesson in overcoming obstacles

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By Mallory Bilger

Hearing impairment is something that Spencer County High School Principal and SEC Basketball Legend Jocelyn Lyons had always viewed as one of life’s hurdles. It was just another obstacle to overcome.

But in recent years, Lyons was looking the reality of complete deafness in the face – and she didn’t like what she saw. As the active mother of 13-year-old daughter Makiah and a passionate high school administrator, she knew being deaf would forever change her life and how she interacted with others.

“People don’t really realize how auditory the world is. You miss a lot of detail,” she said of living with a hearing impairment.

The issue even forced her to leave her teaching job in Oldham County schools, where she recognized her hearing impairment would eventually negatively affect her students. She felt that administration would allow her to impact students but wouldn’t have as many of the daily demands on her worsening ears.

“I always have this thing that you should leave on top,” she said.

Lyons wasn’t going to let her hearing go without a fight, so she began researching cochlear implants. The medical devices – which can benefit those who suffer from moderate to severe hearing loss – weren’t available when she was a child. Lyons’ hearing impairment was identified at age 3, but no cure or cause could be found. She was able to learn speech and was completely integrated into the auditory environment, even though her hearing loss worsened as she aged and she relied upon a hearing aid.

Lyons felt that the implants, which allow sound to bypass the damaged mechanical portions of the ear and send sound waves directly to the auditory nerve, could help her regain some quality of life. To her disappointment, in 2003 she was ruled an improper candidate for the implants. Several doctors ruled that, unlike many people suffering with hearing impairment, her speech was too developed for the procedure. She is also a proficient lip reader, which contributed to her denial for the implants.

“(The doctors) felt so much of my speech was developed as a child that it might not benefit me,” Lyons said.

But that answer wasn’t good enough. Lyons knew cochlear implants had affected positively thousands of lives and she believed they could help her. Getting the devices was perhaps her last chance at living out the second part of her life with sound.

“I think that when you have nothing, you will take anything,” she said.

And that is exactly what Lyons told Dr. Mary Burton, director of audiology at the Heuser Hearing Institute in Louisville. After being rejected initially for the implants from another group of doctors, Lyons learned of the Heuser Hearing Institute in Louisville, where Burton serves as head of the cochlear implant department.

Burton, along with other doctors, determined that Lyons was a great candidate for implants in both of her ears.

“We know that through history, what we have found is that people who can read lips tend to do better quicker with an implant than those who can’t. You have another modality that can help aid that implant to produce better understanding of spoken language,” Burton said.

Lyons understood that cochlear implants might not be like hearing the world through perfect ears, but they were the closest option available to her. In March 2009, she decided to undergo surgery on her right ear, which had the most extensive hearing loss. For many years she had worn a hearing aid in that ear. 

“You really don’t know what to expect because the anatomy of the ear is so complex,” she said of the uncertainty surrounding the procedure.

The outcome was beyond any expectations Lyons had. The experience was so positive and her recovery so quick that Lyons decided to get an implant in her left ear in April of this year. For years, she classified her left ear as her “good ear.” The decision to have the second surgery was not as easy as the first.

“I thought, ‘I’m giving up my good ear.’ There was a loss of security in deciding to have the second ear done,” she said.

But that was perhaps one of the best decisions she ever made. Lyons said she came out of both surgeries ready to have her devices activated after about eight days, while many who undergo implants have to wait up to six weeks to have the devices activated.

“In both ears, in the sound booth, my hearing was in normal ranges,” she said, smiling.

For the first time in years – and perhaps for the first time ever – Lyons was experiencing a whole range of sounds that she hadn’t heard.

“It sounds very different. It sounds almost mechanical. You are literally training your brain to hear,” she said.

Since her surgeries, Lyons is still realizing the full potential of her cochlear implants. She has undergone countless hours of at-home and in-office therapies to help her brain relearn the sounds she has been without for so many years. She said it has been particularly tough to differentiate voices over the telephone, but she can hear them, and that is half the battle.

“Once you’re activated, there are people that are always seeing value added to their hearing over time,” she said.

There is a large learning curve associated with the implants, especially for patients who undergo the surgery and were profoundly deaf. Those patients are learning sound for the first time, unlike a child with the ability to hear sounds from birth.

“Most patients will say in the very beginning it sounds very high-pitched and mechanical. But then, over a short period of time, generally within a few weeks to a few months, that sound starts to sound more natural and normal,” Burton said.

Lyons said her cochlear implants have given her the promise of a future in education and the ability to continue supporting her daughter, who also has a hearing impairment. Lyons is excited about what technologies might be available to help Makiah regain some of her lost hearing one day. When she first heard of cochlear implants, they sounded like a myth instead of reality.

“It sounded like something that was so technologically advanced that it wouldn’t be a possibility,” she said.

Lyons was a great candidate for implants because of her willingness to put in the time to relearn sounds and to follow the doctor’s orders for success, Burton said. Not to mention that she has a strong will to not just survive, but thrive.

“She’s been an amazing patient. Her results have been very good. Jocelyn was one of those people when she came to me, she said, ‘I really think I only have five more years left to work, because my hearing loss, I think, will prevent me from doing what I need to do’. After her implants, she’s realized she has the rest of her adult working life,” Burton said.

And it’s not just the rest of Lyons’ adult working life. It’s the entire rest of her life. Lyons said throughout the years she believes family and her friends, including University of Kentucky sorority sisters and fellow basketball teammates, have helped her overcome the challenges of her hearing impairment. In fact, they’ve helped her laugh about it.

    Lyons said she used to repeatedly ask others, “What did they say?” Now that she has her cochlear implants, she might just have a one-up on her friends when they become senior citizens.

“When they’re 80, they’ll be asking me,” she said with a smile.