Grass Valley audiologist moved by trip to remote Alaska to help those with hearing loss
This summer, Grass Valley audiologist Sol Barros participated in a humanitarian mission that took her to one of the most remote areas in the United States.
Bethel, Alaska, boasting a population of just over 6,000, had been targeted by the Oticon Hearing Foundation due to its residents’ lack of access to treatment for hearing loss. More than half of the population in Bethel are Alaska Natives, the indigenous peoples of Alaska.
Based in Somerset, New Jersey, Oticon’s mission is to increase public awareness about hearing loss and its impact on quality of life, most notably among people in impoverished communities throughout the world. As a result, they routinely reach out to hearing care professionals who can volunteer their time to provide care for under-served populations and communities.
That’s how Barros found herself looking out of a small plane over the remote, treeless Bethel, which can only be reached by river or air. Four hundred miles west of Anchorage, Bethel is a hub for more than 50 outlying villages and tribes.
Barros was one of approximately 60 audiologists who fanned out to three separate locations, armed with donated hearing aids and equipment to provide hearing tests and wax removal. For many patients — most of them seniors — this was the first hearing test they’d ever had.
“We had people travel great distances for this — some traveled more than three hours by boat for a hearing test,” said Barros. “We had to get permission from tribal members to come.”
Working from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, Barros and her team treated at least 100 people per day. But by the end of each day, Barros said she still felt inspired.
“There is so much joy — like when a grandpa can hear his grandchild for the first time,” she said. “Tears just start rolling down his face.”
Treating patients ranging in age from 18 to 90, Barros said she was moved by one elderly man, a veteran, who looked surprised when he heard his daughter say, “Hi dad, I love you.”
“Talk some more,” he said. “I didn’t know your voice sounded like that.”
With a combination of joy and sadness, another older gentleman asked Barros, “Where were you 40 years ago for my music?”
Throughout his life, the man had learned to play many instruments despite his severely limited hearing, she said.
Barros said she arrived home feeling humbled and grateful for her own quality of life, yet keenly aware that many Nevada County residents also do not get the hearing screening and care they need.
“When you’re strapped financially, a hearing test is one of the things you put off,” she said. “I want to get the word out that there are organizations, like The Starkey Hearing Foundation, that can help people who can’t afford hearing aids.”
According to the World Health Organization, more than 360 million people have disabling hearing loss, many of whom live in developing countries. The Starkey Foundation reports that less than 3 percent of these individuals can afford hearing aids or even have access to the care they need. Their foundation is working to form partnerships, empower local teams and expand community-based hearing health care around the world.
“This humanitarian work is my passion,” said Barros, who went on a similar mission in Fiji several years ago. “There is nothing like seeing someone’s reaction when they first experience sound, it’s the most precious thing. Their whole demeanor changes. Being able to finally hear can profoundly change a person’s life.”
For more information on the Starkey Hearing Foundation, visit http://www.starkeyhearingfoundation.org. For more information on the Oticon Hearing Foundation, visit http://www.oticonhearingfoundation.org.
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email Cory@theunion.com.
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