The Burgos sisters, unable to afford the devices that could help them hear again, have been mocked, left behind and written off as “the deaf girls.” Today, that changes.
Author Steve Friess Photography Stephanie Sinclair
The first, second and third attempts don’t work. Nothing is happening. Ambar Burgos just gazes ahead, with little reaction except some obvious nervousness at the semicircle of adults staring eagerly at her. “Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop,” the strange man repeats from behind her. The 10-year-old just blinks, oblivious. Her mother, Rudelania Familia, stands off to the side muttering a plea to God in Spanish.
The fourth time, her prayer is answered: After the man once again pushes back Ambar’s thick bushel of curls, slips yet another set of hearing aids into the tubes that stick out of her ears like incense sticks, and flips their switches, Ambar’s blinks become widened eyes, her bashfulness turns into a full, toothy smile, and she sits up a little straighter. “Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop,” she repeats, finally able to acknowledge the audio test pattern beckoning her. Tears brim in her mother’s eyes.
It has been a long, difficult road for Rudelania. This morning, she and her daughters, who sleep in one bed along with their father in a two-room apartment in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, woke before 6 a.m. to get ready. Then, along with Rudelania’s mother-in-law, they joined hundreds of other families in waiting areas made up of rows of white plastic chairs under white sideless tents for a nearly six-hour wait. Rudelania’s youngest child, 8-year-old Rubely, burst into tears and buried her face in her mother’s lap more than once out of sheer boredom and frustration with the damp heat.
Even so, Rudelania has no complaints. Since she realized three years ago that both Ambar and Rubely suffer from hearing loss, she has wondered what she and her husband, a barber who makes about $250 a month (roughly minimum wage in the Dominican Republic), would be able to do about it. Ambar had been sent back to the third grade because she wasn’t keeping up, and Rubely had been in fights with girls who mocked her—and those were just the start of the problems she anticipated for her daughters.
Enter the Starkey Hearing Foundation, the charitable arm of the United States’ largest hearing-aid manufacturer. Starkey’s founder, the 73-year-old billionaire Bill Austin, spends 10 months of the year visiting developing countries around the world with teams of volunteers to fit and gift as many people as possible with hearing aids. When a doctor at the local children’s hospital urged Rudelania to sign up Rubely and Ambar for an upcoming Santo Domingo mission, she said, “Of course, of course I would do it.” All she had to do was get the girls to the D.R. naval base on the appointed day in early February—and wait. “We would wait all night if we had to,” says the 27-year-old mother. “We would wait two days. If my girls cannot hear, it can be a very bleak life in a country like this.”
It had already been a busy 2015 for the Starkey gang by the time I met up with them in Santo Domingo. Shortly after New Year’s, Austin landed in Cabo San Lucas for the first leg of a five-stop, 18-day swing through several of Mexico’s most impoverished cities to fit about 4,000 people with hearing aids. Austin would do a week in the D.R., then three in India, plus stints in Nepal, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia and Mauritania before returning for about a week to his home base of Minneapolis. Two weeks later, in early April, he was to head back to Mexico for another eight-city, three-week swing. And so on.
The goal is to “give the gift of hearing,” as the Starkey brass put it, to more than 100,000 people this year. Some of that is through Hear Now, a program that provides discounted or free hearing aids to low-income Americans, but most is through the foundation’s overseas work. In 2010, through the Clinton Global Initiative, Austin publicly committed to giving away 1 million aids by 2020. Foundation executive director Brady Forseth says they’re on track to hit that target by 2017.
“The first missions were small; we made the ear molds right on-site,” Austin recalls of the occasional visits he and his team made to Mexico in the 1970s. “In the olden days, we could only handle about 50 patients a day. I thought, ‘We’re doing good work, but the world is big and we’re not going to make a dent.’ Now we fit about 500 people a day.”
The Starkey Hearing Foundation was formally established in 1984 and has since conducted missions all over the world. Last year, Austin and his team visited 26 countries and gave away more than 175,000 hearing aids. It is a complex operation that involves in-country partners who spread the word of upcoming missions via local media and through schools and nursing homes. Caution rules, however; Starkey hasn’t been to Egypt since the political turmoil erupted there, for instance, and he’s waiting for tensions to ease in South Sudan before going there. “We try to avoid wars,” Austin says tartly.
One of his gifts is an ability to attract famous, powerful people to his side, the better to draw media attention. Former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have come to missions to help fit hearing aids. Music stars like Garth Brooks, Miley Cyrus and Elton John have as well. Forest Whitaker, who won an Oscar for portraying Idi Amin, helped out, appropriately, at a Uganda mission.
In Santo Domingo, the bold-faced names mingling with the dozens of other volunteers include Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, and Derrick Coleman, the first deaf offensive player in the NFL. Coleman, who was discovered to be nearly deaf by age three and is able to hear rudimentary sounds with hearing aids, has the same thought I have as he works, in particular, with the children of Santo Domingo: “If I’d been born here instead of in California, I definitely would have been one of these kids who aren’t allowed to go to school, who get to be teenagers without ever hearing.” Forseth adds that many hearing-impaired children in impoverished countries are forced into deaf schools by educational and health-care systems ill-equipped to accommodate them. “Where we’re born, that’s just a fluke of luck, man,” says Coleman, right before he goes to work on Rubely and Ambar.
Weeks before I meet the Burgos sisters, volunteers in Santo Domingo took their ear impressions and shipped them to the Starkey lab in Minnesota to be turned into molds. When the family arrives at the Club de Alistados Marina de Guerra, the country’s main naval base, the molds are ready.
As the hours slowly pass, and the Burgos sisters get closer to the fitting tent, those molds, with tubing protruding, are already in their ears. Rubely, who met me the day before when I visited their tiny home, is getting cranky again, so I distract her by leading her for a walk around the grounds, under the shade of mango trees, to look at the chickens and stray kittens meandering about. We wander around the tent where Starkey volunteers stand around eager hearing-aid recipients, the air filled with testers uttering, “pop, pop, pop” or “hola, hola, hola.” Rubely is wide-eyed and excited by the buzz of activity but largely oblivious to the cacophony.
The mission is awash in gripping personal drama and bursts of happy, emotional energy. As Rubely and I look around, for instance, a muscular 19-year-old in a Miami Heat cap named Harold Ramirez looks dour and sullen as Coleman tests a few low-power hearing aids on him. Then, when Coleman switches to higher-power models, the young man’s grimace blooms into a grin that reveals a grill of teeth with silver braces studded by green rubber bands. He was forced out of school in the third grade and sent to work on his grandmother’s farm, he tells me. Perhaps, he says wistfully in sign language, he can now go back to school. His mother is doubtful, but happy nonetheless.
The work can be as challenging as it is uplifting. It involves being on your feet for hours at a time, crouching over strangers who usually don’t have a vocabulary, even in their own language, to describe what, if anything, they hear. Most patients will try several aids on each side before they get to a power level that provides some hearing. Even then, it can be of only limited value—an awareness of some noise—which, while helpful, is a come-down from the hope of being able to participate in conversation. Most older patients take the disappointment in stride, but the parents of small children wear their heartbreak on their crestfallen faces. Some cannot be helped at all.
The Burgos girls fall firmly in the middle—possessed of enough hearing that the world isn’t silent to them, but struggling nonetheless. The day before the mission, as we sit in her ATM-vestibule-size living room, Rudelania explains that her first clue came when her daughters started turning the TV volume up unusually loud and still complaining that they couldn’t understand it. But the tipping point came in 2012, when a car nearly hit Rubely because the child was unaware of either her mother’s warning screams or the driver’s honks. “I realized then it was more than an inconvenience,” Rudelania says. “It is dangerous.” She took both Rubely and Ambar to the children’s hospital for Rubely’s appointment, not realizing Ambar might also have a problem. The elder girl, it turned out, tested even worse.
At home, the girls are squeezed onto the same chair and wear matching Rihanna T-shirts; they’re high-spirited until the conversation turns to school. Ambar explains softly that she should be in the fifth grade but was sent back to the third grade, the same as Rubely. Teachers, Rudelania interjects, refuse to put either girl in the front of the class to help them hear better, and nobody in authority steps in to scold bullies who deride the sisters as las niñas sordas, “the deaf girls.”
Yet there was no way this family, surviving on their father’s modest salary, could afford hearing aids for one—let alone two—children. (The cost of the aids can exceed $5,000.) As it is, the family spends nearly one-tenth of its income on an after-school tutor to help the girls with their studies. “When the woman at the hospital called to tell us about Starkey and that we could have help for free, I couldn’t believe it,” Rudelania says. She pauses, grows quiet, her next words catching in her throat, overwhelmed by the emotion of the memory. Composing herself and wiping gathering tears from her eyes, she softly repeats, “I just couldn’t believe it.”
Rubely, it turns out, is easy to fit. Coleman, on his first international Starkey mission, starts out slipping the basic models onto the tubes; the child responds instantly. He jacks up the volume because part of the fitting process involves figuring out the level at which sound is uncomfortable for the patient, to determine when she is getting as much power as she can handle. She grimaces, Coleman turns the aid down a couple clicks, and the smile returns.
Ambar is more challenging. After the basic model fails to elicit a reaction, Coleman fetches stronger ones from a long table where hundreds of hearing aids are laid out by power level. Eventually, the downcast girl in the denim vest and polka dot hairbows starts beaming. “I think that works,” Coleman exclaims, his reaction translated by one of a dozen local medical students volunteering as Spanish translators for the week.
As a bonus, a Starkey volunteer notices the girls are with their 77-year-old grandmother and asks Rudelania if her mother-in-law could use some hearing assistance too. Ana Burgos is whisked to registration, a general ear mold is provided, and within minutes she is in the same chair her granddaughters were just in. Two hearing aids later, her stiff, icy stoicism melts into giggling and clapping. “Better, better, better,” she says gleefully in Spanish. Such add-ons are common at missions.
After the fittings, the Burgos family moves on to another tent, where Starkey volunteers explain the proper care and use of the devices. Then they wait another hour or so to get to the head of the line in one last tent, where quality-control technicians check the aids and the fit of the molds one last time. Starkey folks will check in with them regularly to see how things are going, and they’ll be invited back for “after care” when Austin and the crew return for future Santo Domingo missions. “Every patient is tracked in an iCloud database,” Forseth explains. “The child who is not in school, will they be able to go to school? The father, like I saw yesterday, who is worried about losing his job and providing for his family, does he keep his job? We track all of it.”
As the family chats with me one final time before hailing a taxi home, a car alarm begins to bleat in the nearby parking lot. It is shrill and incessant, and both Ambar and Rubely reflexively cover their ears and contort their faces. This time, it’s their mother with the look of awe and then a sprawling grin. Many a car alarm or fire engine or blaring school announcement has come and gone in recent years without her daughters noticing, she says. She can’t count the anxious afternoons spent worrying whether her girls might not hear some oncoming danger while they’re out with friends. “That is the sound of a warning,” she explains, more tears rimming her eyes. “At least they can hear it now. I can’t believe it. They can hear it now.”
Ann Arbor, Michigan–based journalist Steve Friess has written for The New York Times and Newsweek. He also has significant hearing loss and, like Coleman, lucked into being born into an American family who could afford his hearing aids.