May 16, 2008
By Scott Latta
UA Media Relations
In a small, windowless office in the middle of downtown Birmingham, Ala., 3-year-old Will Andress is playing with plastic snakes.
Slowly, methodically, he picks them up and hangs them by their tails off another plastic toy. Periodically he will stop and smile, biting off a piece of the half-eaten blueberry waffle that sits on the table in front of him before he takes a drink of milk and goes back to the snakes.
When you look at him, there is little about Will that would make you think he is anything other than a normal 3-year-old. He parades around the office in a camouflage helmet, and he is quick to make friends with anyone he sees. When he talks to you, he'll tell you that some of his favorite things to do are to walk his dog Rocky and pick flowers with his mom.
But try and talk back to Will and he won't hear you. He is hooked up to a computer while he plays, and an audiologist is sending various tones of different pitches into his ears to test his hearing range. Born profoundly deaf, Will has had bilateral cochlear implants in his ears since he was a baby, and today, in the HEAR Center at Children's Hospital, they are being reset.
Will is one of what is estimated to be more than 100,000 people worldwide who have received cochlear implants. Thanks to technology and modern medicine, he can now hear at close to the same level as someone without a hearing impairment, though he hears everything electrically, through the system of 22 electrodes wound around his cochlea.
The normal human ear can detect sounds at a level of 25 decibels or better. Before his implants, the softest sounds Will could detect were at a level of 95-110 decibels, or similar to that of a jet engine. Cochlear implants extended his hearing range down to 35 decibels, and now he is hearing the softest sounds in the normal hearing range.
Locally, Will is one of more than 100 kids who has received a cochlear implant through the HEAR (Hearing Enrichment Assessment Research) Center and is part of the reason for one of the University of Alabama's newest athletic partnerships.
It was during winter break in 2007 that senior Alabama softball player Jordan Praytor decided to research a charitable cause for her team to partner with.
"I had wanted to get our team involved with something like this for quite a while and just seeing gymnastics and their `Drive 4 the Cure' partnership and swimming and their work with Laps for CF," Praytor said, "I just felt it was appropriate with the huge fan base that we have, that we are able to give back and do something and connect with other people."
Praytor's research took her to Children's Hospital, where she explored different wards, including the Burn Center and the HEAR Center. She took the information back to the team to decide which unit to sponsor, when Lauren Parker, a junior on the team from Port Neches, Texas who wears dual hearing aids, gave a talk about her family and how being hearing impaired affects her.
After that, Praytor said, the decision was pretty much made.
"Hands down it was unanimous," she said. "That was the one we were going to choose."
When Lauren Parker was born, the odds were immediately stacked against her. Hearing loss, which is genetic, ran all through her mother's side of the family: her grandmother, two aunts, an uncle and two cousins are all hard of hearing. Growing up, she would always sit close to the TV. When she began to fall behind in preschool, her teacher got suspicious. By 5, she was wearing two hearing aids.
Today, Parker has 60 percent hearing loss in her left ear and 40 percent in her right. She is the only hard-of-hearing member of her family whose speech is unaffected, though 13 years of speech classes, she knows, have certainly helped.
Parker brings something to the partnership that her teammates cannot: an immediate connection. Her hearing loss provides a connecting point to each of the children in the HEAR Center. Though for now she wears bilateral hearing aids, Parker knows her hearing has already begun to deteriorate. One day, like Will, she may need bilateral cochlear implants.
"When I get older my hearing's going to go downhill," she said. "It already has; I had a hearing test not too long ago and my hearing has dropped even more. It's something that I'm faced with and it's going to be a decision I'll have to make in the long run. I'd love to do it once I get to that point and to know that opportunity is available touches me so much to know I might have that chance when I get older."
A transfer from Baylor, Parker was voted a first-team all-SEC player in 2007, leading the SEC in on-base percentage (.509). This year, she has batted .344 in 40 games, stolen 12 bases and compiled a .984 fielding percentage. But despite the adjustments she has made up to this point just to play the game, including learning to distinguish who was calling for fly balls in the outfield and how far away they were, there are still breakthroughs.
Recently, Parker replaced her pair of hearing aids - the same ones she had worn since she was 5 years old. At her first practice with the new devices, she heard something she had never before heard in her life.
"I had just gotten done hitting and it was my first practice to wear these new hearing aids and I was like, that's what the ball sounds like coming off the bat," she said. "Everybody was like, `What?' But I didn't know it sounded that way.
"It touched me personally because I know I'm blessed because I have a little hearing left and these kids don't have any hearing whatsoever, and we can touch their lives by raising money and enabling them to hear things they've never heard before. I took it for granted and I'm hard of hearing. I can't imagine what it feels like to not have any hearing at all."
The partnership, though still in its infant stages, will one day include corporate sponsorships to raise money for the HEAR Center for in-game milestones including every strikeout, home run and stolen base. The money donated to the center goes toward family events and programs that the center hosts, as well as, hopefully soon, a new building.
For now, the impact the team has had on the children at the center has been largely face-to-face. Recently, the team visited the center to meet with the children and take a tour of the facility, signing autographs, handing out T-shirts and just spending time with those who were there.
Among the children visited that day at the center were Will Andress and his brother, John, 5, who is also hard of hearing. The impact on John was so profound, their mother said, that he has a reminder of it to this day in his own bedroom.
"John's got a poster of the softball team hanging in his closet," Jennifer Andress said, "and my husband went to Auburn.
"John talked about their visit for a long time. The girls went above and beyond and spent a lot of time, a lot of time, with the kids, getting down on their level and making them feel special."
The visit did more than just put faces to a cause - it inspired the team to see who they were playing for, as well as the children, to see people who have overcome various obstacles to succeed at the highest point in their level of competition.
"I think for a lot of the kids they need role models like that," said Mandy Mahalak, the audiologist who administered Will's test. "They look up to them, to see that someday maybe they could do that. A lot of our kids are involved in sports and it was great for them to interact with them."
For Jordan Praytor, who is working toward a degree in biology, the decision to reach out to the community was an easy one. All she had to do, she said, was look around her and she felt the conviction to give back.
"If you just look at the University of Alabama athletics as a whole, we are given so much," Praytor said. "I think a lot of times without thinking about it, we don't reciprocate that and we take it for granted. It's just so easy to give back. Our stadium is sold out every game and we have all these people supporting us, and once we choose to support something, all these fans that support us now support that cause as well."
Though she was unable to accompany the team on their first visit to the center, Lauren Parker is dying to go. She has met a handful of the kids, when they traveled to Tuscaloosa for a softball game, and she wants, as much as anything, to get to Birmingham to see them. She can connect with them on another level, pointing to her hearing aids and sharing the experiences she has had in life and softball. Hopefully soon, she will get her chance.
For now, she, like the rest of her teammates, is focusing on winning a national championship. As the No. 3 overall seed, Alabama's chances at a championship this year are as good as any. But that doesn't stop her from thinking about the partnership, or the opportunity to reach out to others and use her hearing loss for good.
As someone who wants to devote her life to working with the hearing impaired, she said, it's an opportunity to get started, right here, as a member of the Alabama softball team.
"It hits home," Parker said. "I think about it day in and day out. I think people take things for granted. It's the small things that mean the most. Just to smile at one of those kids can change their life. It's so real to me because I'm in that situation.
"To see them and know that they've been in my shoes before, I look up to those kids. You go in and they're just glowing, with smiles on their faces. There are times I feel sorry for myself, but look at these kids: they're younger than me and they're smiling about it. How can they ever look up to me?"