Hear Hear

Alexa Urrutia (left), daughter of Brenda Gonzalez, with Lilli Germar playing outside at John Tracy Clinic. Photo: Robert Fulton/California Health Report

When children at John Tracy Clinic first receive a hearing aid, their reaction to the amplification can range from awe to fear.

And then the talking begins. And doesn’t stop.

“She had never heard anything, so she just cried and cried and cried,” said Brenda Gonzalez of the South Los Angeles suburb of Paramount. Doctors diagnosed Gonzalez’s daughter Alexa with profound hearing loss at the age of 10 months and set her up with Cochlear implants in each ear a year later. Now the 4-year-old Alexa thrives at John Tracy Clinic’s summer preschool program, making pancakes in a classroom, running outside on a playground, and most importantly, talking and learning.

“Now she’s talking in almost four-word sentences,” Brenda said, proudly. “She’s understanding so much.”

If one word can summarize John Tracy Clinic’s mission, it might be “understanding.”

John Tracy Clinic is a multi-faceted non-profit addressing hearing health for children up to age 5. The clinic focuses on educating hearing-challenged children and their parents.

“Many people think of John Tracy Clinic as a school,” said Jill Muhs, vice president of programs at John Tracy Clinic. “If you think it’s traditionally like a school, then you’d be missing the point here. The idea is that we have a number of programs, all that support the concept of parents being able to take their children forward in any way they wish to so that they can help their children who have hearing loss.”

California’s Department of Health Care Services requires hearing screening for newborns. If a child is deemed to have hearing loss, a pediatrician can refer the newborn to John Tracy Clinic for a second screening.

But it’s not always that clear-cut. Doctors misdiagnosed Alexa at birth, and a re-screening at 10 months showed significant hearing loss. That 10 months was a crucial 300 days lost in Alexa’s early development, though she has progressed since joining the clinic.

Alexa paved the way for her little brother Kevin. He too was born with significant hearing loss, but his mother Brenda expected it and doctors diagnosed the youngster early. Kevin, now 2, and also fitted with bilateral Cochlear implants, started attending John Tracy’s summer preschool program this year.

“I wasn’t worried because I know John Tracy Clinic would be able to help me and get him started earlier,” Brenda said. “I wasn’t worried about him being delayed.”

“I’m already passed the stage where it was a shock,” she added.

**

John Tracy Clinic is kind of a Hollywood story.

John Tracy was the son of Spencer Tracy, the famous actor who made the transition from stage to the big screen with the advent of sound, and his wife Louise. John was born with hearing loss, and Louise decided to take matters into her own hands. She started John Tracy Clinic in 1942.

The tree-dotted campus occupies approximately three acres adjacent to the University of Southern California on West Adams just south of Interstate 10 in Los Angeles. Classrooms, screening areas and offices measure out to 40,000 square feet.

The preschool features two classrooms, each with between 10 and 12 students taught by five teachers and two full-time aids. The goal is to have the children ready for mainstream school by kindergarten. The classrooms have observation rooms using two-way mirrors, where parents and graduate students can observe.

On a recent morning, Antje Germar’s 6-year-old daughter Lilli busily made chocolate chip pancakes with her classmates.

The Germars’ participation reflects the clinic’s international outreach. Lilli was born in Berlin, and German doctors diagnosed her with hearing loss at a young age and fitted her with an implant. But as Lilli grew, her verbal skills did not keep pace with that of her peers. Though their child’s hearing loss had been treated, Antje and her husband knew something was wrong.

“We felt very helpless,” Antje said.

The Germars learned of John Tracy Clinic and enrolled in one of its online Parent Distance Education courses that teach parents how to pursue language learning with their children.

After the online course, the Germars decided to enroll Lilli in John Tracy Clinic’s summer preschool in 2009 and 2010.  That led to the family moving to Los Angeles and enrolling Lilli for the recent school year.

A turning point for Lilli came one morning when teachers asked the students to say good morning into a microphone. A booming “good morning” escaped the lungs of the child.

“She was observing everything and picking up everything,” Antje said. “This was the first time we heard a full strong voice.”

The Germars don’t hold the record for the furthest traveled to John Tracy Clinic for services. That distinction just might go to Gantuya Dava of Mongolia.

Doctors diagnosed Gantuya’s son Nadima with hearing loss, but options in Mongolia were limited. Gantuya had no family experience with hearing loss, and the best she could find locally were schools providing sign language. Even a trip to China proved fruitless.

“It’s like the world has come down,” Gantuya said. “We didn’t know what to do.”

An online search turned up John Tracy Clinic. Gantuya moved her family and literally showed up at John Tracy’s Clinic front door looking for help.

That was two years ago and Nadima, now 4 years old, is progressing, talking up a storm and asking questions.

“Here at the John Tracy I feel at home,” Gantuya said.

Adult education plays a major role in John Tracy’s services. Parents learn how to interact, communicate and help develop a child with hearing loss. Support groups form with other parents.

“They teach you how to work with the kids,” said Rolando “Jae” Rivera. “You know how to work with other kids too. You can help other families.”

Jae’s daughter Abigail experienced hearing loss at birth and received a Cochlear implant in both ears at a very young age. But that’s about as far as services went for Abi in Puerto Rico.

Jae learned of John Tracy Clinic through a friend, and moved his family to enroll Abi in John Tracy’s preschool. The father can recite the date his family relocated to Los Angeles (Oct. 14, 2011) and when Abi started school at John Tracy Clinic (Oct. 17, 2011).

“It was a big, big change for the good,” Jae said.

Jae said Abi, now a little more than 3 years old, has learned to express and think for herself. Plus, she’s doing so in both English and Spanish, something doctors back home told him was not likely.

“John Tracy Clinic has done so much for us as a family,” Jae said. “We get here, we get happy.”

John Tracy’s offers online and on-site Master’s degree programs through the University of San Diego. There’s a small classroom for graduate candidates, and the clinic itself acts as a real-life lab.

According to Blythe Maling, Vice President of Development and Communications, John Tracy Clinic is funded through private sources, foundations, corporations and individuals; and a national grant covers much of the grad school costs. The clinic offers most of its services for free, but recently started charging for the summer preschool program. Muhs said she’s unsure how long John Tracy Clinic can continue offering services free of charge.

The clinic doesn’t provide hearing amplification devices, but can point families in the right direction. It’s also active in the community, visiting area preschools for free screenings and possibly providing answers for more families.

“I’m a different person,” Jae said. “I have a different family. I have a different perspective of life. There’s no words to express it. I’m very happy.”

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