Better Hearing in the Dominican Republic Provided by Hear the World Foundation and Sonova Group

(Camil looking at sister Shenoa. Photo Credit: Michael Edmond Isaac)

(3BL Media and Just Means)—Sisters Camil and Shenoa bounce around the playground at Centro Cristiano de Servicios Medicos in a busy neighborhood of Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. They show me how they can do handstands and other acrobatic tricks as their parents proudly inform me of their daughters’ achievements. At just 12 years old, Camil participates in one of the country’s national junior, volleyball leagues. She’s tall and strong and plays the position of “atacador,” she tells me. Her father has high hopes Camil will make a career out of volleyball and is saving money to take her to Puerto Rico for an important tournament.

I ask Camil several questions about what she likes about playing volleyball. I can tell she’s having trouble reading my lips and understanding my accent. Her father repeats my questions slowly and encourages Camil to look at me and answer me directly. She tries, though her responses are broken and muffled. The confident athlete who 15 minutes earlier proudly demonstrated her cartwheels becomes shy and timid as she speaks.

(Camil speaking with me. Photo Credit: Michael Isaac). 

Both Camil and Shenoa were born with severe hearing loss. When Camil was one year old, her mother discovered her unresponsiveness during the annual December fireworks. Shenoa’s severe hearing loss was detected at three months, her mother being acutely aware of the signals for deafness. The cause for the hearing loss in both girls remains unknown, though it does not run in their family.

Miguel Evangelista, Director of the Audiology Program at Centro Cristiano de Servicios Medicos--a robust medical center, offering extensive services to some of the poorest residents in the Dominican Republic--explains to me that Camil and Shenoa received hearing aids in the past, but because their hearing loss is so severe, the aids did not provide sufficient support.

“Both patients have received hearing therapy and came to the clinic today to be fitted with MAX hearing aids,” says Evangelista.

In 2010, Centro Cristiano de Servicios Medicos partnered with the Hear the World Foundation, a nonprofit whose goal is to enable as many people as possible to enjoy better hearing. Founded by Swiss-based hearing aid manufacturer Phonak, a brand of the Sonova Group, the Hear the World Foundation is financed by Sonova Group and its missional-inspired employees who often fundraise to support projects around the globe. Nicole Hunter, Hospital Administrator of Centro Cristiano de Servicios Medicos, applied for a partnership with Hear the World Foundation when she saw the need for audiology services for the hundreds of children the medical center serves daily. She knew that the island lacked hearing support services and that children with hearing loss were among the most marginalized. However, before the center could provide hearing aids and screenings to patients, Hunter recognized that they needed to build a strong team of audiologists. The first step in the partnership with the Hear the World Foundation was to launch the first audiology training program in the Dominican Republic.

“Our training program brings in new medical students and builds the capacity of the clinic,” says Hunter. “Our goal is to train enough audiologists so that they can serve patients in each of our four sub-centers across the city.”  

So far, 15 Dominicans students have been trained as audiologists, and the Hear the World Foundation has invested $275,000 in hearing aids, batteries, diagnostic equipment and monetary distributions. To me, this piece is corporate social responsibility at its finest: Not only does the Hear the World Foundation provide funding, diagnostic equipment and hearing aids for partners like Centro Cristiano de Servicios Medicos, the Sonova Group also provides employees with paid time off to offer their expertise and training skills.

During my visit with Centro Cristiano de Servicios Medicos, Olga Guzman, a Sonova Group Technical Audiologist from an office in Bogota, Colombia trained new audiology students to properly fit children with Unitron hearing aids. Together with Guzman, Sarah Kreienbuehl, GVP Corporate HRM and Communications at Sonova Group and Board Member of the Hear the World Foundation and Michael Isaac, Director of Media Relations of Sonova Group and photographer, I watched children experience the sound of their mothers’ voices for the first time. Some of the children were startled with the loud and noisy world around them. Others turned their heads quickly as we knocked on walls and doors, responding to a variety of vibrations. Watching a child look up at their mother as they heard her say their name evoked emotion in all of us. These are moments I will never forget. These are moments made possible because of the Hear the World Foundation’s long-term commitments to building audiological infrastructure in the world’s poorest nations.

According to the Hear the World Foundation’s 2013-2014 report and research from the World Health Organization, only 5.2 percent of low income countries have more than one audiologist per million population, compared to 87.5 percent of high income countries. In developing nations like the Dominican Republic where audiologists are few, sign language education and deaf support systems are also rare. Detecting hearing loss in young children is essential because left untreated, the academic and career options for a person with hearing loss are extremely limited, often resulting in a life of exclusion and poverty. It’s not a future Sonova Group will accept.

“We can’t say our vision [at Sonova Group] is to live in a world where everyone enjoys hearing and not do something about creating access for those in developing nations,” Kreienbuehl says. “Our aim is to invest into locally-based partners with the potential for long-term sustainability.”

And they are picky about the partners they choose. They have to be, Kreienbuehl tells me. Hear the World Foundation receives more than a hundred applications every year and looks for specific check points in each one.

“How will the partner reach out to parents? How will they collaborate with local governments? Do they work with the insurance system? If there are in-country experts, do they collaborate with them? How will they support the patients after the hearing aid fitting? How will they create self-sustaining revenue?” Kreienbuehl explains to me.

With a 30-year history of successfully providing medical services to the poor, Center Cristiano de Servicios Medicos was a natural partner for the Hear the World Foundation. Phase two of the partnership includes the launch of the first, newborn screening clinic in the Dominican Republic. In collaboration with one of Santo Domingo’s largest, public hospitals—where 19,000 babies are born every year--a team of audiologists will use high-tech equipment to screen babies for hearing loss, hours after they are born.

“Based on annual birthrates, we can assume a minimum of 400 newborns with congenital hearing impairment per year. The screenings will start with premature babies first because they are at higher risk for hearing loss,” says Hunter.

The newborn screening program will prevent families from haphazardly discovering deafness in their toddlers. Parents like those of Camil and Shenoa won’t have to worry if their daughters will have delayed language development—or hear their volleyball teammates yell from across the court to set the ball.

“Camil has been asking when she was going to get a better hearing device,” her father tells me. “She couldn’t wait for this day to come.”

See the partnership between Centro Cristiano de Servicios Medicos & Hear the World. Read the 2013/2014 Hear the World Foundation Report. Check out where Hear the World invests around the world. Read about Centro Cristiano de Servicios Medicos in Santo Domingo. Like Hear the World on Facebook. Follow them on Twitter and their feed on Instagram.