Rediscovering the Sense of Sound

By Drew Telegin in Life

From where he was sitting at his computer, he heard an unfamiliar sound amidst the rushing wind. Puzzled, he arose from his studies and followed the string of harmonic notes coming from the patio.Clark College professor Tom Stevenson teaches communications. Despite being deaf, his determination and cochlear implants enable him to participating in the classroom. (Kamerin Johnson / The Independent)

Slowly, the tears began to swelter and run down his face as he recognized the long-forgotten sound. Tom Stevenson was hearing the beautiful sound of wind chimes –  a sound he thought he’d never hear again.

Stevenson is a 53-year-old public speaking instructor at Clark College who is legally deaf. However, with the aid of cochlear implants he can now hear.

At age 16, Stevenson’s mother decided to take him to the doctor where many tests revealed he was 50 percent deaf and would continue to lose his hearing.

Weak muscle tissue on the right side of Stevenson’s face had been collapsing ever since birth, making it hard to breathe and causing him to lose his hearing.

Every year he would visit the doctors only to have another surgery to repair his face.

Undeterred, Stevenson found his passion for communications at Oregon State University through public speaking classes.

“I was deaf and I listened better than most people,” Stevenson said.

In a five minute speech, Stevenson revealed to his classmates his maturing condition: “I’m definitely going deaf, and that has me scared to death.”

The following year Stevenson dropped out of OSU to become a reporter and editor at a local paper in The Dalles for 15 years.

Stevenson visited OHSU doctors with hopes of finding the reason for his failing hearing.

“Why am I going deaf? Fix me,” he asked.

The doctors had no answer.

Stevenson walked away from OHSU motivated to go back and get his Master’s in communication. He enrolled at Portland State University focusing his attention to public speaking with a minor focus in conflict resolution.

At Portland State, Stevenson discovered that 90 percent of his hearing was missing. He was forced to rely on his ability to read lips and use the last sliver of his hearing to function in the classroom.

Despite being almost deaf, Stevenson started teaching public speaking in 2004 while attending graduate school. He used real time captioning and lip reading to interact with his students.

On the first day of classes, students often threatened to leave his class because they thought that he wasn’t capable of teaching them. Stevenson would always reply, “Give me time to show you this is going to work.”

According to Stevenson he never had a student quit his class because they thought he was incapable of teaching them.

“All of my students who have had Tom love him and speak very highly of him,” said Rebecca Engle, an ASL teacher and friend of Stevenson.

In 2008, Stevenson discovered he had a new problem. His equilibrium was unbalanced causing him to fall and blackout.

Doctor Harold Kim at the Wilson Ear Clinic in Portland took up the challenge of trying to figure out what was wrong with Stevenson.

Many tests later, Kim figured out that Stevenson could actually hear again and regain his balance.

According to Stevenson, Kim asked him, “How would you like to hear again?”

“I’d like to fly too but that’s not going to happen!” he responded.

Kim explained that he was a candidate for cochlear implants that would enable him to recover over 50 percent of his hearing.

Stevenson faced a hard decision. He could do an expensive surgery to recover some of his hearing and risk never hearing again, or continue to live the way he was.

Stevenson decided that teaching communications was what was most important to him and to do that, he would want to hear.

He had the surgery in winter of 2008 but the implants weren’t functional until April of 2009. When they were turned on, he burst into tears as he heard clear voices for the first time in 15 years.

It took three years for Stevenson to fully adjust and recover from having the implants and familiarize himself with hearing again. Stevenson said that at first, he wasn’t sure if he wanted the implants.

Stevenson said that at first, he wasn’t sure if he wanted the implants. Ultimately, he decided being able to hear his students would benefit his teaching.

Chantal Kanso, a former student who took a communications class with Stevenson said, “He was an amazing professor and he taught me to become more confident in myself.”

Stevenson said, “Communication isn’t easy for everyone, but it is possible.”

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