01 Jun National Campaign for Better Hearing
Q & A with Leslie Soiles, Chief Audiologist for The National Campaign for Better Hearing
Her remarks are below:
What unexpected obstacles have you faced (even as a student) and how are they overcome?
I was very young when my hearing loss was detected, but I just lived with it through high school. As a student in elementary school, my hearing loss impacted fundamental skills. I was a delayed reader, and had difficulty sounding out words. Fortunately, I got tutoring. My tutor’s investment in me was pivotal in keeping me learning at my grade level. By middle school I had learned techniques to stay ahead of the curve. I worked twice as hard as my classmates, trying to understand what was being taught. I read materials before class, so I’d have context for lessons the following day.
During my freshman year in college, I realized I couldn’t be successful without addressing my hearing loss. Academically, I could no longer compensate and fake it. The classes were too big, the subject matter was more complex and I needed to hear my professors clearly in order to learn. I got hearing aids. It was a life-changing experience for me. Prior to getting hearing aids, I shied away from taking part in discussions because it took me time to work out what was being said. Suddenly, I could participate actively in discussions because I was confident that I knew what was being said.
When I started college I was unsure what I wanted to study. Once I came to terms with my hearing loss, I discovered that I wanted to be an audiologist, so I could help other people with hearing loss. I could also educate people about the implications of untreated hearing loss and the rewards of treating it.
(Soiles earned her Au.D. at A.T. Still University of Health Sciences; M.S at University of Massachusetts Amherst; and B.S. at Worcester State University.)
How did your life change when you got hearing aids?
When I first started wearing hearing aids, they were analog and they made everything loud. I could only wear them in a meeting or classroom. I couldn’t wear them in a car, at a restaurant or in the kitchen (because they made everything louder). In 1996, the technology advanced to a level where digital hearing technology became available, and that was the turning point for me because I could put my hearing aids in and leave them in all day long. It allowed me to be at the ready for conversations or interactions—with a cashier at a store or with a colleague in a meeting. I was able to participate as an equal and fully engage in the discussion.
How is having a hearing impairment beneficial when working with patients? Do you feel it connects you more with patients?
Having a hearing impairment has allowed me to identify with my patients and be more empathetic about their challenges. They are dealing with the same feelings and concerns that I’ve experienced. I’m able to connect with them on a level that surprises them. They also trust that I can understand what they are going through. Some people may say that hearing loss is unfortunate, but for me the way my hearing loss has unfolded—personally and professionally—it has been a gift. Having hearing loss makes me a better audiologist.
Having a hearing impairment yourself, what barriers do you feel still exist?
Even with my hearing aids, there are times, especially in large meetings where a microphone isn’t being used, that I can’t hear what is being said. When this happens, sometimes I find myself feeling like that struggling student. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen very often as technology has advanced and offers new options for such situations.
What areas do you feel the field of audiology excels in?
We have a laser focus on hearing health. It is a true specialty where not only do we understand how the ear works and what happens when it’s not working, but we also understand the very broad range of treating hearing loss. Hearing is one of our five senses. If one of our five senses aren’t working, that’s a huge deficit. As audiologists, we can hone-in specifically on what’s gone wrong, and treat hearing loss more precisely. The correction that we provide is life-changing because hearing is the sense that connects us to each other. If you think about it, conversations, dialogue—that ability to express thoughts and feelings—that’s the foundation of relationships. If hearing loss is disrupting that capacity, it impairs a person’s quality of life. As an audiologist, I am in that unique position of being able to correct hearing loss and redeem those social interactions.
Tell me about your mission to educate Baby Boomers about the importance of putting hearing care on their healthcare agenda.
I was inspired to enter the field of audiology by an audiologist who was a powerful force in my life. He educated me about hearing loss, and helped me understand why it caused me to struggle. Up to that point, no one had explained it to me. As a kid, I was in and out of testing booths, but didn’t know what was happening. I found understanding the relationship between my hearing loss and my everyday challenges very liberating.
As the chief audiologist for The National Campaign for Better Hearing, my mission is to educate people about the need to monitor their hearing. As we age, there will be hearing loss. It’s typically slow and not something you realize right away. Having a baseline hearing test is going to provide beneficial information to people age 60 and over because it will determine their current hearing levels, and make it easier to identify future hearing loss.
We have an incredible capacity to cope with things that are not perfect. Baby Boomers are likely to struggle for years with a slowly progressing hearing loss before they do something. They may compensate by lip-reading or by avoiding noisy restaurants—they will needlessly put themselves through hearing challenges when it could have been addressed so much sooner. Most hearing loss is easily treatable. I want to make sure the Campaign for Better Hearing educates people about how hearing loss can impact their lives, and what their options are, so they can lead their best lives.
What is the biggest reason people delay getting a hearing assessment or taking the next step to hear better?
Many primary care doctors are not educated about hearing health and have not made it a priority for patients to get a baseline screening. So, Baby Boomers are unaware that they should get their ears tested at age 60.
What unexpected obstacles have you faced and how are they overcome?
Over the course of my career, I worked with three different Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) practices and I would test patients’ hearing and fit them with hearing aids, as needed. Working in busy ENT practices sometimes meant that I didn’t get to spend as much time with my patients as I wanted. Eventually, I decided to open my own audiology practice, so I could give patients more time for education and help them make informed decisions. This practice is now part of HearingLife.
What would you say to someone who is delaying taking steps to get a screening or to get a hearing aid?
The sooner you take the first steps toward hearing better, the better your overall prognosis will be. People do not address it because they are afraid that wearing hearing aids means they are getting old and they are no longer that youthful person they perceive themselves to be. But what they don’t realize is that cupping their hand to their ear and saying, “What?” or “Huh?” is what makes them look old. Gently guiding them through the journey and showing them that a tiny device, that is barely noticeable, will not make them look old. Rather struggling with hearing loss—that’s what makes you look old.
What advice do you give to people on how to protect their hearing?
At a minimum, earplugs should be used when operating loud equipment like lawnmowers or snowblowers, but earmuffs really protect hearing the most. Recreationally it’s important to wear earplugs when riding a motorcycle or a snowmobile or when going to a concert. At a concert, you can still hear the music with earplugs, but it takes the piercing noise level down. For kids and teenagers, streaming music through their ear buds is becoming an issue. As a general rule of thumb, if the person next to you can hear what’s in your ear buds, you need to turn down the volume.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about hearing loss?
That hearing loss is normal and because it’s normal you don’t need to do anything about it. I even have doctors tell their older patients that they have hearing loss, but “it’s normal for their age.” They are implying that if you are old it’s okay to have hearing loss because you are old. But I tell my patients that while it is expected to have hearing loss as we age, hearing loss is not “normal,” and there are ways to improve it.
What has hearing loss taught you?
It’s taught me that nobody is perfect, but we all have our own way of filling the gap. It has taught me to value those relationships where the individual is going to partner with me to fill the gap. I had family members and teachers who went above and beyond to get me where I needed to be academically and emotionally. My hearing loss has given me a more informed perspective of who’s with me and on my side and who is going to help champion the things I value.
How were you able to make hearing loss not who you are, but part of you?
Having supportive people who surrounded me and came alongside my dreams and visions and didn’t put limits on me is what allowed my ablity to move forward and do what I needed to do to close the gap. I never let hearing loss get the best of me and the people around me didn’t communicate that hearing loss was bigger than me—rather it was a problem that we could solve together.