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Family, technology help Slayton girl adjust after hearing loss

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Family, technology help Slayton girl adjust after hearing loss
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

SLAYTON -- Like many of the other 6-year-olds in her class, Emma Siedschlag loves swimming, riding horses, coloring, playing with Barbie dolls, wrestling with her dad, dressing up and listening to her parents read to her.

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Unlike her classmates, however, Emma can only listen with her right ear. She hasn't been able to hear out of her left ear since before she turned 2.

"When she was a day old, they knew that there was probably something wrong with her ear," said her father, Jim Siedschlag, who teaches third grade at Murray County Central.

The doctors weren't sure, and it could have simply been some fluid stopping tiny Emma from hearing. They told Jim and his wife, Janese, to come back in a couple months. Instead, the parents went to the school nurse for resources and found an audiologist in Willmar who could test Emma's ear.

At 10 months, the little girl was sedated and hooked up to a machine that could check her hearing. The machine found she had a 45 decibel loss.

Emma's parents acted as quickly as they could, finding a hearing aid for their daughter that would allow her to hear better. Then they brought her to a pediatric audiologist who recommended going to Rochester for more testing.

Emma lost the rest of the hearing in her left ear between the age of 1 and 2.

The Siedschlags were worried. They had no idea what had caused Emma's hearing problems and feared she could lose the hearing in her right ear.

Sometimes hearing loss is hereditary, but Emma's family doesn't have a history of hearing loss at early ages.

"They call it nerve damage," Janese explained. "They say in about 80 percent of all hearing loss (cases), you don't even know what caused it. They can't pinpoint it. We may never know, we most likely won't ever know what caused it."

After more tests, audiologists said Emma wasn't likely to lose the hearing in her right ear.

The Siedschlags set out to help Emma hear as best as she could with the working ear as quickly as possible. As teachers, they knew how critical the first five years of a child's life are.

At 8 months old, the little girl had a teacher working with her once every two weeks. Like most kids, Emma started preschool at 3, but she also works twice a week with Bonnie Rauk, a teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing. She still sees audiologist Sharyce Baartman.

"The window of opportunity is so small to help -- we had to jump through a lot of hoops. It sounds like we did all the right stuff, but at the time, we didn't know that," Janese said.

People who don't know Emma usually can't tell she has hearing loss. She is bright, outgoing, talkative and a good listener. She likes games and puzzles.

Emma does have difficulty telling where distant sounds are coming from -- a safety issue for a youngster just learning to cross streets safely and ride a bike. She also has difficulty in large areas with lots of noise. Basketball games can be overstimulating, and the background noise can prevent Emma from hearing much of anything from the people close to her. People with two functional ears can filter background noise from the noise they want to hear more easily.

Emma does tend to tilt her head so her good ear is toward anyone speaking to her, especially if they aren't close to her. She also watches people's lips as they speak and keeps a close eye on her surroundings -- as a result, Emma is much more observant than many of her peers.

"Because of that she notices everything. She notices things nobody else notices," Janese said. "She's always done that. She notices things most of us miss."

Often, she is also a better listener than average, simply because she pays close attention to what people say. Emma is also learning to ask people to repeat themselves when she doesn't hear, so that she can become her own advocate.

She has plenty of other advocates, too. First and foremost is her big sister, Rachel, 8, who speaks right up if neighborhood kids' games leave Emma at a disadvantage, although usually the other kids are helpful and try to compensate for Emma's hearing loss.

Technology can help. At school, Emma unfolds a tiny receiver and puts it in her ear. The transmitter goes on her teacher's lapel, so Emma can hear every word the teacher says, regardless of where she stands in the room.

With the sound system, Emma can hear 100 percent of her teacher's words, and when she started using it, she became more confident, outgoing and talkative.

Sometimes people ask about the thing in Emma's ear. Usually she tells them, "It helps me hear." When she asks why she can't hear like other kids can, her parents tell Emma it's not much different from the glasses they wear to make their eyes work better.

"All of us have learned from Emma that it's important to keep our ears safe," Janese said.

Janese always wears earplugs when she runs the vacuum cleaner, and Jim protects his ears while working with tools. Emma's hearing loss has probably saved some of her family's hearing because they now know to be careful.

Other parents of children with hearing loss should keep asking questions and looking for resources, the Siedschlags advised. The resources are out there; if a family doctor doesn't know an audiologist, schools and hospitals are good resources. Finding information on the Internet is easy. There are meetings for people with hearing loss and their families.

Lifetrack Resources, a community-based service organization, offers information about hearing loss and even a monthly newsletter. Its Web site can be found at www.lifetrackresources.org.

The resources helped Emma's parents figure out how to help their daughter -- and they did help.

"She really overcompensates," Janese said. "You can't even tell she has a disability."

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