Volleyball player loses hearing, gains perception


POWELL, Wyo. (AP) — For a week Felicity Zegarelli's life turned upside-down. She was on her way to the dining hall for lunch a month ago when suddenly everything went silent.

Rewind a few weeks prior to this and you would find Zegarelli doing what she loves, playing college volleyball. The 6-foot freshman from Pueblo, Colo., plays outside and right-side hitter for the Northwest College volleyball team. Her world started to go quiet after a game one night.

"I jumped up and when I landed, my right ear popped," Zegarelli said. "I started bleeding from my ear. I told my coach and he thought I said my ankle popped and my ear was bleeding. He was really confused about what happened."

Zegarelli went in for a hearing test and was told that she had severe hearing loss in her right ear.

"I thought: I can deal with that," she said. "I'll get hearing aids and I'll be fine."

As weeks went on, Zegarelli noticed her hearing worsening. Then, it vanished completely.

"I had just gotten out of class and I was walking to the lunchroom when both my ears released and I just couldn't hear anything," she said. "I was terrified. I stopped right in the middle of the road, and I was plugging my ears to see what was going on. I tried to pop them. I couldn't even hear myself breathing, which was really scary."

All she could think to do was to remind herself to stay calm and immediately tell her coach.

"I walked into his room and I didn't know how loud I was talking, who was behind me or what was going on," Zegarelli said. "The world just went quiet."

Initially, she felt more nervous than scared.

"I wasn't thinking: 'Oh my gosh, I lost my hearing,'" Zegarelli said. "I was thinking: 'Oh my gosh, what about volleyball? What is going to happen now? Am I still going to be able to play?'"

Volleyball head coach Shaun Pohlman was prepared, having dealt with a similar situation in the past.

"Anytime anyone gets hurt, injured, or just a crazy situation occurs, my instinct is to stay calm. If I'm freaking out, everybody else is freaking out," he said. "We didn't have answers or the ability to say whether the circumstances were good or bad. I planned to face adversity."

The first night of silence brought on the fear for Felicity.

"I remember just sitting in my room and wanting to feel bad for myself," Zegarelli said. "But I didn't want anyone else to see that. I didn't want anyone to think that I had given up or that I wanted to give up. I didn't want to lose anything."

Triniti Taylor, Zegarelli's roommate and teammate, initially shared her distress.

"It kind of scared me at first," Taylor said. "But she's really strong. I knew she could get through it."

Zegarelli was thankful to learn that Pohlman knew sign language and was ready to teach her.

"I needed that communication," Zegarelli said. "It kept me calm. The world didn't just stop around me; everything was still happening. I had to keep going with the flow."

Her teammates wanted to learn sign language, too.

"I think that's why it wasn't as hard for me," Zegarelli said. "It wasn't as hard as it would have been if I didn't have anybody. Everybody kept me in the loop about what was going on."

Zegarelli said she understood the frustration everyone around her was also experiencing. She knew it was difficult for her teammates to communicate with her. They never complained though.

"They were always super positive around me and it was awesome," Zegarelli said. "They were there through everything."

"Everything" included the seizures that occurred prior to her hearing loss.

"These girls would stay up all night for me when I was (having seizures)," she said. "They would protect me from hard surfaces and made sure I hit the floor fine and wasn't hitting my head. These girls were my armor when I was at my weakest point."

Cammie Brost, the athletic training assistant, stayed by Zegarelli's side for the weekend when she was suffering from seizures.

Zegarelli continued to attend classes, as she was determined to be a good student and go somewhere in life. She found the classroom setting frustrating, though. Watching the instructor's mouth move, but hearing nothing come out, was especially difficult.

"I went to the disability teacher and asked if I could get a note-taker or just someone to help me," Zegarelli said. "I didn't want to do online classes. I just wanted to be normal and keep going on how I have been going on. I didn't want everything to change."

She received help in classes and mentioned that Taylor helped tremendously. Taylor would type out the instructor's lecture in order to help her friend.

"All the teachers were helping me," Zegarelli said.

Zegarelli added that Pohlman was behind her 110 percent.

Pohlman said that his goal as a coach is to face every situation, whether good or bad, with maturity, accountability and responsibility.

Her mom planned to come to Powell, but Zegarelli told her that she wanted to handle this on her own, realizing her mom couldn't protect her from everything anymore.

"My poor mom," she said. "She did the best she could because she was checking on me every day, asking how I was feeling, and I was like, 'I'm good, I've got a lot of good people here on my side.' This is why I chose Northwest College, because we're not just a team; we're a family."

About a month ago, the volleyball team went on a trip for an away game and the miraculous happened.

Zegarelli had fallen asleep during the bus ride and when she woke up, she could hear teammate Ana Jakovljevic chewing her gum. She lay on the seat, looking up at the bus ceiling, noting how loud everything seemed. Teammates were casually chatting around her, but to her it seemed as though they were screaming.

Zegarelli, after having been deaf for a week, regained her hearing.

"Everything seemed to be rushing into my eardrums," she said. "I was sitting there, plugging my ears once again, trying to think, 'Is this real? Am I dreaming? What's up?'"

When she got off the bus, Zegarelli told her coach that she could hear again. He was shocked, and so was she.

"I had chills from head to toe," Zegarelli said. "I was sweating because I was just so excited and nervous. I was texting everybody like, 'I can hear.'"

Zegarelli appreciated the coach, staff and team members who stuck by her and expressed their concern for her health and wellbeing.

"That, to me, was the only thing I needed to get through this," she said. "Without them, I probably would have gone home and just felt sorry for myself. But I had a whole wall behind me. I didn't have time to fall."

Although no longer deaf, Zegarelli still suffers some hearing loss and has to invest in hearing aids, but she says she is OK with that.

Zegarelli has yet to get over all that happened, but she is turning it into a positive situation, using it as a confidence booster.

"Here's the next step of life," she said. "It's time to move on to something else."

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