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Faces Behind the Screen: Peggy

Peggy Ellertsen

When people experience hearing loss for the first time in their lives it can manifest in a deep, personal crisis. But some people learn how to take it in stride and make it their life mission to help others who are going through the same thing.

One of those people is speech and language pathologist, Peggy Ellertsen, who we spoke with at HLAA’s New England Walk4Hearing 5k event last Fall.

Peggy has a very vivid memory of her initial struggle with hearing loss, which was first identified in the spring of her senior year in college, a few months before she was to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in speech pathology.

    My department head had gotten a grant for installation of an audiology clinic in our campus speech and hearing center. He asked graduating seniors to volunteer to have him evaluate our hearing so that he could work with the diagnostic equipment. When he assessed my hearing, he discovered a mild, sensori-neural hearing loss. It was the first time that I had any inkling that my hearing acuity was not within normal limits.

While a discovery like this was shocking enough for anyone to handle, it was even more troubling for Peggy, whose mother had experienced the tremendous challenges of a progressive hearing loss when Peggy was growing up.

    It was a crisis, because my mother, at that point, had lost almost all of her hearing and had become overwhelmed by hearing difficulties. She had become very dependent on my father, and she experienced chronic exhaustion posed by the listening demands of her condition.

    Growing up as a witness to her struggle was very painful, and when I realized that I too might have the same type of hearing loss, I was very concerned.

I didn’t know anyone my age who had hearing loss. I felt very isolated…

In retrospect, Peggy told us, she knows that the cause of her mother’s inability to cope with hearing loss was likely due to a lack of resources beyond hearing aids and the presence of stigma surrounding hearing loss, especially in her mother’s generation. There also was little, if any, access to support groups like HLAA, so she was essentially on her own.

    …In my mother’s day, I think that much of her withdrawal was because she just was so overwhelmed by the loss of ability to easily and spontaneously participate in conversation — and by the stigma that results from that.

Immediately after her graduation from college, Peggy’s hearing was re-evaluated by an audiologist and she was fitted with hearing aids. But that didn’t exactly solve the problem.

    I got hearing aids right away. And I really hated them. I didn’t like the way they felt, and I didn’t like the way sound… sounded. However good my aided speech comprehension was when measured in the audiology booth, when I was in the real world, the hearing aids were a source of tremendous stress and actually impeded communication. So, like many people who are on their first round of hearing aids, after a summer of trying, I put them in the drawer — where they would remain until I was in my mid-30s — and I got ready to move to Boston for graduate school.

Despite her preoccupation with the possibility that her hearing loss might well be progressive, Peggy entered Northeastern University’s Master’s Program in Speech Pathology in the fall after her graduation from college. During her entire time in graduate school, Peggy says that just about every day, she thought about how her hearing loss might affect her career.

I couldn’t really go to the movies anymore and fully get the jokes. I felt things slipping away from me.

    I didn’t know anyone my age who had hearing loss. I felt very isolated in the knowledge that I likely carried a genetic hearing loss legacy, as my grandfather also had severe hearing loss. But because the only treatment offered at that time was hearing aids, I pretty much kept my worries to myself and followed through with my career plans.

Soon after earning her Master’s Degree, Peggy started working as a speech and language therapist in a public school system. As such, she had access to a portable audiometer that allowed her to track her hearing, which remained stable for a number of years.

    When I started working, one of my functions as an elementary school speech and language therapist was to screen the hearing of second grade children. With access to a portable audiometer, I was able to monitor my own hearing thresholds with occasional rudimentary self-screenings — something that become somewhat of a preoccupation.

Peggy became vigilant about listening carefully to other people’s speech. Eventually, when her hearing loss progressed, she began to actively and carefully control her acoustic environment and chose work situations that would allow her to work with one client at a time rather than groups. She was fitted with better hearing aids in her mid thirties, working with an audiologist who prescribed her with amplification that was effective. But her hearing loss was progressing, and despite the new hearing aids, she would in time begin to miss incidental information, prompting her to make additional lifestyle changes.

    I couldn’t really go to the movies anymore and fully get the jokes. I felt things slipping away from me. …It was around that time that I began to actively disclose to clients, friends and extended family members that I had a hearing loss, and I discovered HLAA — a real game changer.

I burst into tears. I was thinking about my mother, and how this is what she needed… what would have made her life so much better.

Unlike her mother, whose resources for learning how to effectively manage hearing loss were limited, Peggy began to access opportunities that would help her to understand and embrace her condition.

    By then I had sort of become a little more comfortable in my own skin about [my hearing loss]. Sam Trychin, one of the many resources that I’ve acquired through HLAA, has always said that what we have to do is get comfortable with our own hearing loss before we can expect anyone else to accept it. So, I think I had sort of achieved that at this point.

Peggy first became involved with HLAA in 2002 when she went to one of their conventions in Washington, D.C. She attended that convention in order to investigate assistive listening devices. But what she ultimately took away from at the convention was something profound and life changing.

    I’ll never forget it. I walked into the [convention] with my bags… and there were hundreds of people with hearing loss, talking to each other, and reading their programs, and planning their schedules, and which seminars were they going to go to. And I burst into tears. I was thinking about my mother, and how this is what she needed… what would have made her life so much better. And I knew that, for myself, it was going to be OK. I’ve got this.

Ever since then, Peggy has been heavily involved with HLAA. She developed a speaker series for HLAA’s Boston chapter, and for four years was webmaster of the chapter’s award winning website. She is currently an elected member of HLAA’s Board of Trustees, serves on HLAA’s Get in the Hearing Loop Task Force, and this year is co-chair for the New England Walk4Hearing.

Peggy also works closely with communities and businesses to make the world more accessible and enjoyable to people who are hard of hearing. Lately, she’s been working with theaters and other entertainment venues in the Boston metro area to help them implement assistive listening systems that allow most people with hearing aids and cochlear implants to hear stage or screen audio.

For more inspiring stories and perspectives from people we met at the New England Walk4Hearing see our interviews with Kevin, Sandy, and Stu.

A huge ‘thank you’ to the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) for hosting this series of interviews at the New England Walk4Hearing in Fall of 2016.

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