Giving the gift of hearing
Audiologist Mani Aguilar serves the residents of Southwest Va.
Photo by Dan Addison
| Mani Aguilar, a clinical instructor in the Curry School’s communication disorders program, checks a client at the U.Va. Speech-Language-Hearing Center.
By Anne Bromley
After audiologist Mani Aguilar fitted an older gentleman with his hearing aid, she and other volunteers at the Remote Area Medical clinic listened as he burst into song – a hymn – and was joined by a gleeful five-year-old. It was the first time the man from Southwest Virginia had heard his granddaughter’s voice.
“Every year a miracle happens, and last year it was Mani Aguilar,” said Dr. Claudette Dalton, who organizes U.Va.’s volunteer troupes and free equipment to go to the RAM clinic in Wise, Va., held every summer since 1999.
Aguilar, a clinical instructor with the Curry School of Education’s communication disorders program for less than a year at the time, provided 58 patients at the free clinic with practically free hearing aids.
For the past five years, with the help of scores of volunteers, Lions Club branches, various company sponsors and the Wise health department, U.Va. has set up the summer clinic at the Wise County fairgrounds — this year it will be held July 29-31 — to bring basic health care to hundreds of uninsured residents.
At the RAM clinic, patients were getting hearing tests and seeing an ear-nose-and-throat doctor, who would recommend whether or not they needed hearing aids. But Dalton said she began to realize the same patients were coming back the next year — and soon discovered they weren’t able to get the hearing aids locally.
Barely a week before the team headed to Wise last summer, Dalton was still looking for someone to find a way to get those people the hearing aids they needed. A RAM volunteer who had recently met Aguilar thought she might be willing to help, and Aguilar answered the call.
She sprang into action, starting by soliciting audiology students from James Madison University. U.Va. has a program for speech pathologists, and the two schools frequently work together. Audiologists focus on diagnosing hearing-related problems, as well as properly fitting hearing aids; speech pathologists screen for possible hearing deficits, going into local schools and working in clinics such as the one U.Va. runs, providing not only a medical service to the community, but also a working environment that enhances the education of students.
Aguilar brought with her to Wise equipment to conduct another hearing test, which before this time had not been offered at the RAM clinic. She also took materials to make ear molds at the site, so hearing aids could be ordered. She found companies to donate them or sell them for a low price.
Six months later, when the hearing aids came in, Aguilar, JMU audiologist Clare Jacobson and a handful of JMU students returned to Wise in February to give the patients what they had been missing — the gift of hearing.
“The people were amazed at what they could hear,” said Aguilar, who hails from Medellin, Colombia. She spent her youth growing up there and also Miami. Before coming to U.Va., Aguilar worked as an audiologist in Florida and in a children’s hospital in Texas for 10 years.
Of the Appalachian people she treated, she said, “They were wonderful. They were gracious, grateful and patient. You could tell they cared about each other.”
This year, Aguilar has organized five graduate students and two other audiologists to accompany her on the public service venture.
At a special reception in her honor, held in May, Ronald Reeve, chairman of Curry’s human services department, said, “Everyone at U.Va. is expected to contribute public service. Every once in a while, someone goes so much further, it’s not enough to say, ‘well done.’” He and Dalton presented her with a plaque recognizing her contributions and a bonus from Human Resources’ rewards and recognition program.
“Mani’s efforts represent a wonderful example of collaboration in outreach between the U.Va. Medical and Curry schools,” said Randall Robey, director of the University’s communication disorders program.