Emotional Journey Brings Hope, Then Joy

by McKayla Tracy

Aaron and I took our long-awaited, five-hour ride from Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, to the University of Alabama Hospital at Birmingham on January 5, 2016.

Our morning started early (6 a.m.) and our first stop upon arrival was with Dr. Benjamin McGrew in the Audiology Clinic. Our purpose was to check out the incision site and Aaron’s inner ear. Dr. McGrew had completed both of Aaron’s auditory brainstem implant surgeries. The first surgery was on September 24, 2015. After each surgery, we waited 2-3 weeks before the implant could be turned on. This ensured complete healing and the diminishing of any swelling. The down side was that it also prolonged the wait-time involved in learning whether Aaron would hear again.

To bring our BVA friends up to date on Aaron and to more fully understand everything he experienced prior to the appointment at the clinic, some brief biographical information is in order.

Aaron Hale is a 14-year veteran of both the Navy and Army. He had deployed once to Iraq and it was on his second mission to Afghanistan where his career as an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) Team Leader ended. It did so on December 8, 2011 when an Improvised Explosive Device was triggered in front of him, severely wounding him and taking his sight entirely from both eyes.

Aaron never accepted defeat and, just as he always did before, he began looking for new challenges. While awaiting his military retirement as an Army Staff Sergeant, he taught at the EOD School, continued his education in the finance field, started running marathons, kayaked, and climbed eight mountains, including Mount Mariposa in Peru. In August 2014 he attended the BVA 69th National Convention in Sparks, Nevada, as a participant in the Operation Peer Support initiative and he is now a BVA life member.

Last August (2015) Aaron experienced still another setback, losing his hearing entirely due to bacterial meningitis. Even without his hearing he hoped to overcome still another adverse situation in life and began spending his time running on a treadmill and doing considerable cooking in the kitchen.

Returning now to our day spent in Birmingham, we received the green light from Dr. McGrew. All was now in order for the implant to be turned on. At that point we had just enough time to grab some lunch and head back up to the fifth floor for Audiology to finally confront us with our moment of truth. At lunch, I shared with Aaron that I was nervous.

He said, “What for?”

I wrote in the palm of his hand, “Well, you know…I’m nervous about them turning it on.”

Aaron quickly reassured me.

“Don’t be nervous. I’m not nervous. Regardless of whether it works or not, we’ll be fine.”

Aaron has a way of always brightening any situation and for that I’m grateful.

We made it back up to the Audiology Clinic, escorted by Blair Gibson, our usual audiologist who does Aaron’s mapping (she’s always wonderful and such a sweetheart). We made small talk and then got straight to business once we were sitting down. The clinic brought in a cochlear representative to ensure that Aaron’s implant was mapped, programmed, and turned on properly. Another audiologist was present to help out. We felt that we were supported, knowing that this moment would be life-changing no matter what the outcome.

While Aaron was still unable to hear, he and McKayla came up with a form of communication they still use today. She writes, letter by letter, in the palm of his hand. He describes her as his “eyes, ears, guide, translator, and angel.”

While Aaron was still unable to hear, he and McKayla came up with a form of communication they still use today. She writes, letter by letter, in the palm of his hand. He describes her as his “eyes, ears, guide, translator, and angel.” 

The mapping began. Mapping is a process that involved hooking up Aaron’s processor (the outer part of the device that connects to his head) to the mapping computer. The computer program essentially wrote a code based on the pitches Aaron could hear or, in some cases, would not be able to hear. Aaron was instructed to verbally let the programmer know if he could hear a “beep” or feel it in his face. The latter result would be a negative one since the implant recipient should not feel any electric shocks when hearing certain tones or pitches. If this happened, that particular tone would be eliminated or deleted so that the device would not pick it up.

Immediately, Aaron started recognizing the beeps. This was a huge relief.

After about 45 minutes of programming, Aaron started getting excited. He literally busted out laughing and said, “Please turn this thing on! This is the most hearing I’ve had in five months.”

Blair told me to tell him that they were going to turn on the device. I wrote in the palm of his hand in uppercase letters, “TURNING ON NOW.”

Blair then hit a button on her computer and asked, “Aaron? Can you hear me?”

Aaron raised his eyebrows and tilted his head.

“Aaron, are you comfortable?” Blair asked.

Aaron responded: “Am I comfortable?”

At that moment tears started streaming down my face. The range of all of the emotions from the past five months came out all at once and this time they were tears of joy. The device worked—without complication or delay!

We wrapped up our appointment, excited to hit the road and head home. I talked to Aaron for the first time in five months and he heard me. Today I still can’t believe it. Reflecting on what an emotional journey this has been for both of us and for Aaron’s entire family, we want to thank you—each of you—because, without your support, this journey would not have been nearly as loving, thoughtful, or filled with lifelong friendship.

Aaron is hearing although he is not fluent in verbal conversation yet. He will catch words sporadically and it’s most often when the room is completely silent. Ambient noise (fans, radio, music, others talking) is distracting and makes it challenging for Aaron to decipher words.

To practice, we are playing lots of word games. For example, I will write in his hand “50 States” and then begin listing off states verbally. Aaron will guess which states he hears me name. All of this will take practice but we are definitely up to the task. Thank you to all of you again…and, as Aaron would say, “Challenge Accepted!”

Aaron Hale and McKayla Tracy have recently begun a home-based baking company, Extra Ordinary Delights (not coincidentally, a second pursuit abbreviated EOD), in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, which produces handcrafted fudge and other special treats.

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