Before I had children, I worked full time at an engineering consulting company. When I was near the end of my pregnancy with my first child, Rachel, my supervisor asked me to interview over lunch a perspective candidate for a job in our department. The man I interviewed was named Ralph Guertin, and he was profoundly deaf. At the time, I knew nothing about deafness or deaf education. Ralph communicated orally, using what little he got from his hearing aid and lipreading. He impressed me greatly.
About a month later, on May 7, 1987, my father’s birthday, Rachel was born, two weeks before she was due. I actually went into labor the night of May 6th, and I kept asking the nurses and doctors throughout my labor if she was going to be born on the 7th. I knew that my parents wanted a girl, and so when Rachel turned out to be a girl, I couldn’t wait to call my father with his birthday surprise. Because she wasn’t born until after 5:00 in the evening, I didn’t get to a phone until after 6:00, which was about the time of day that I usually spoke to my parents anyway, and so my mother didn’t suspect anything unusual when I called. She thought I was calling to wish my father a happy birthday and said that I had just missed him, that he had gone out for a run. I tried very hard to disguise my excitement when I said to her, “I have a birthday surprise for him.” My mother asked me what, and I replied, “a granddaughter.” She gasped and said, “What did you say?” Once she got over her surprise, I made her promise not to tell my father, to let me call and surprise him. However, when he came back from his run, she couldn’t contain herself. When she threw her arms around him despite his being all sweaty, he knew something was up. When she told him that he had a granddaughter born on his birthday, he had to sit down. I am an only child, and this was their first grandchild. They were wonderful parents and couldn’t wait to be grandparents.
Elliot and me with one week old Rachel
I came home from the hospital two days later, and my parents flew to Boston from their home in Baltimore to see the baby and help Elliot and me during the first week. I don’t know exactly when or what first made me suspect a problem with Rachel’s hearing, but my first conscious memory of thinking about it was when I took my mother to the airport and she told me not to slam the door because I would wake the baby. I know that I was already aware then because I remember thinking that I wasn’t so sure it would wake her. At some point during Rachel’s first week of life, I had already noticed that she didn’t startle to loud sounds.
Elliot was a surgical resident at the time. I mentioned my concerns to him, and he looked up babies and hearing in one of his medical school textbooks. He found something saying that babies don’t respond normally to sound until the age of four months, and we both latched onto that. However, we continued to grow uneasy. When I said something to our pediatrician at Rachel’s first visit when she was about three weeks old, he told me that I was just “an overly anxious new mother who didn’t understand how newborns react to sound.” At her two month checkup, he noticed that her head control was poor, something I wasn’t aware of because Rachel was my first child. She would bob her head up and down on my shoulder because her neck muscles were weak. He suspected cerebral palsy and referred us to a pediatric neurologist. The neurologist did all sorts of tests but did not mention Rachel’s hearing until I asked him about it. He then did a few rudimentary tests and said that we could have her tested.
The night before Rachel’s hearing test, the smoke alarm went off in the hall right outside her room when I burned something cooking. She was happily playing in her crib and didn’t even flinch as the alarm was blaring. I knew it wasn’t good. The next day, we took her to Massachusetts Eye and Ear for an ABR test. It was only supposed to take about an hour, but Elliot and I waited for 2 ½ hours in the waiting room knowing as time went on that we weren’t going to get good news. When the audiologist brought us back into the room, she told us that our suspicions were correct, that Rachel had a severe-to-profound hearing loss. That terminology meant nothing to me at the time, and so I asked her if Rachel was deaf.
The audiologist immediately took us to meet with another audiologist and a social worker. Elliot and I were in shock and were not thinking straight. Plus, we had a very fussy two month old baby to deal with. The audiologist and social worker proceeded to ask us if we knew anything about the controversy in deaf education. When we told her no, she told us that there were those who believed in sign language, those who supported an oral approach, and those who believed in using both. I don’t remember their exact words, but they pushed the Total Communication approach in their presentation. Knowing nothing, we replied that we guessed both would be good. They then gave us one referral, to a TC school, and sent us off.