Program ensures cost won't stop children hearing

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — At first, Kelly and Layton Rausch had trouble believing their baby couldn't hear, but tests showed a mild to moderate hearing loss.

Before little Evie got hearing aids when she was 10 months old, she'd move her head toward noise and eventually look in the direction from which it was coming. After, she'd look at her dad when he talked right away, her mom said.

And Evie discovered her toys make noise — the glow worm played songs, the music table made animal noises.

"The whole world made different noises that she hadn't heard," Kelly Rausch told the Lincoln Journal Star (http://bit.ly/1pS2Npc).

And as she turns 1, Evie is vocalizing, making the sounds that eventually lead to making words.

Because she is hearing more, Evie is saying more, moving beyond aaaah to babababa and dadadada.

Thanks to HearU Nebraska, Evie's parents didn't have to worry about finding $4,000 for those language-saving hearing aids. The donation-supported program provides them free to children whose insurance doesn't cover them.

And it rarely does.

The Rausches didn't have to worry, because audiologist Stacie Ray doesn't want any child to go without a hearing aid because of finances.

Ray knows all about those worries.

She remembers lying in bed at night trying to figure out how in the world she would find the money for hearing aids when her own baby needed them.

They weren't covered by insurance. Both Ray and her husband were in school, working part-time jobs and had no money saved.

So they worried about the cost on top of all the emotions, questions and concerns that come with finding out your baby has a significant hearing loss.

Was there anything I could have done to prevent this?

What will happen when he goes to school?

How can I help him be healthy and happy?

And where will I get $4,000 for hearing aids?

The couple eventually took out a loan that they paid off over the next three years.

Later, after Stacie Ray had gotten a master's degree and a doctorate in audiology and began working at the University of Nebraska Barkley Memorial Center, she found herself in a position to help others.

In 2007, she began the hearing aid loan bank for children, offering six-month loans to pay for hearing aids.

But short-term loans weren't doing the job.

"I noticed very quickly that if parents can't afford the $4,000-plus today, they probably won't be able to do it in six months," Ray said.

So the program was doing a lot of loan extensions.

Not only do hearing aids cost as much as a used car, maintenance charges run more than $300 a year. Plus, they need to be replaced about every five years because they wear out and technology changes.

And kids are often hard on the equipment, just being active, running around, Ray said.

"We wanted to be able to cover the costs so parents can focus on being parents," she said.

In 2011, the program was named HearU Nebraska and began to offer long-term loans, providing hearing aids and other help to children and their families.

It's supported with state funding and donations through the University of Nebraska Foundation.

Since 2007, the center has fit more than 300 hearing aids on 175 children statewide.

People can use their own audiologists, and the program supplies hearing aids and a kit with necessities including batteries and clips that keep the hearing aids attached to baby's shirts and not in their mouths.

At first, Ray's focus was children from birth to age 3, a span during which speech and language development is critical.

In Nebraska, 50 to 55 children are born with a permanent hearing loss each year. Others lose hearing because of pneumonia or meningitis, medicines that are toxic to hearing, or genetic factors that lead to hearing loss.

If babies are identified with hearing loss and get fit with the proper amplification by the time they are 6 months old, they can develop speech and language very closely to their hearing peers, said Ray.

Early language is important because it affects overall cognitive abilities, she said.

But Ray found that older children also needed help.

She found that children age 10 to 12 often had the same hearing aids they got when they were diagnosed as toddlers. The hearing aids weren't working very well, and technology had changed dramatically.

So now, HearU Nebraska provides hearing aids for babies and children with hearing loss and helps with cochlear implants for families whose insurance doesn't cover the equipment or the surgery.

Ray also manages banks that provide refurbished hearing aids for older people: the Sertoma Hearing Aid Bank for people 65 and older and the Lions Club Bank for those 19 to 64.

She has been able to able to turn her own experience as a mother of a child with hearing loss into a mission to help others.

Ray's son used hearing aids until he was 3, when he lost all of his hearing. When he was 4, he got a cochlear implant that allowed him to hear.

Several weeks later, he dragged his mother out to the deck, where he had been sitting cross-legged.

"What's that, what's that?" he signed.

Then he made a sound: whey, whey, whey.

His mom listened. It was a bird whistling.

She went back inside the house with tears flowing down her cheeks, into the corners of a big smile.

Her son could hear the birds.

"And that's why I do what I do," she said.

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Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com

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