06/19/05 — A Father's Day story

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A Father's Day story

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on June 19, 2005 2:01 AM

Jeff Howell and his daughter, Jennifer, live in a quiet residential area of Hood Swamp.

But quiet is a relative term when you are hearing-impaired most of your life.

But for Jeff and Jennifer, the life they are used to is about to change forever.

All because a little tiny implant.

There are different types of hearing loss, Howell said, his was caused by nerve damage. It is hereditary, he said, something he, both his daughters, and one granddaughter all had at birth.

Until recently, their only hope was a hearing aid. Jennifer, now 19, wore what an auditory trainer in first grade. She got a hearing aid in fourth grade.

"I was really self-conscious and only wore it six months to a year," she said. "It makes you feel differently about yourself when you can't hear."

Her father said it is not uncommon for people to stop wearing hearing aids, despite their effectiveness, because of such problems as interference from background noise.

Jennifer, who graduated from Eastern Wayne High School in 2003, said she became very good at reading lips. When she worked at a fast food restaurant for awhile, she said it was a problem when someone would cover his mouth while placing an order.

"I'd say, 'I'm sorry; I can't read your lips,'" she said.

When Howell's older daughter, Mandy Taylor of Mount Olive, read about a hearing device that was supposed to revolutionize the field, she alerted her dad. They learned the surgery involved a device being implanted under the skin behind the ear.

Part of a four-year FDA study, an estimated 60 qualifying candidates from the United States and Germany would be chosen as test cases, Howell said. After undergoing tests to measure their range of hearing loss and whether their bone structure would support the device, the Howells applied.

"I put in the contact information through e-mail," Jennifer recalled. "I had my cell phone with me and not even three minutes later, my phone started ringing."

The process speeded up at Easter, with the Howells preparing their family members for the possibility of a procedure that each now admits "seemed too good to be true."

The nearly six-hour procedure was done in Greensboro at Southeastern Surgical Center, Jennifer's on May 26 and her father's the following day.

Jennifer said she awoke after the surgery and didn't even realize it was over.

"I felt fine," she said. "I felt like I had taken an hour nap.

"The next day, I went shopping with my aunt and uncle."

Howell said they were able to return home immediately, but did experience some soreness the first couple of weeks. They will return to Greensboro several times over the first year for checkups and tests to determine how well the device works. It will not be activated until late July, Howell said, to give the ear time to heal.

"When we get it turned on, it stays on, if everything goes well," he said.

"It's supposed to be forever. It's got a battery in it that lasts four to five years, and we'll have to go back for surgery to replace the battery."

Until it's turned on, Howell said, he is totally deaf in his left ear. His daughter remains philosophical.

"It gets worse before it gets better," she said. "I'm looking forward to it."

They will each get a remote to adjust the device and set it for different environments, such as a crowded restaurant.

"Jennifer and I have been joking around that we're going to go around zapping each other with the remote control," Howell said.

Laughter is a welcome relief after struggling with the inability to hear, he said.

"People with hearing loss have a lack of confidence," he says. "They tend to shy away from social situations because they don't hear well."

There is a difference between being deaf and being hearing-impaired or hard of hearing, Howell says, and he wishes more people understood some of the challenges.

"I know that people have always thought that I was stuck-up because I didn't talk that much," he said. "I'm not that outgoing, but the reason is because of the hearing impairment.

"It's held me back from relationships and job opportunities. I'm hoping that this device will be like a new lease on life for me."

A short-distance truck driver, Howell is currently unemployed. He attributes his being fired on the heels of his surgery to the fact that he had to take so much time off from work.

Jennifer, who works in the lawn and garden department at Lowe's, says she entertains the idea of one day writing a novel. Perhaps she will consider sharing what her father calls an amazing story.

"You don't think something so great can happen so close to you," she said.

As a Christian, Howell says he had prayed for years and years that his ears would be healed.

"I honestly believe that God has had His hand on this all along," he said. "It's been so easy. Things have fallen into place so easily."

Sharing the experience of having the surgery has been a bonding experience for the father-daughter pair, one of many since Howell became a single parent when Jennifer was 3 years old.

"I think it's been positive toward our relationship," she says. "We have spent a lot of time together and will continue to spend a lot of time together.

"I told my dad if this was just as good as the hearing aid, I would be happy, just to not have to wear something in your ear. I think it's going to improve our circumstances again."