Utah program helps deaf babies to hear

Published: Sunday, July 6 2014 3:23 p.m. MDT

Updated: Sunday, July 6 2014 3:23 p.m. MDT

Ashley Shawcroft poses for a portrait with her daughter, Genevieve Shawcroft, at Wheeler Farm, Thursday, June 19, 2014. Genevieve received hearing aids from a pilot program created by the state in 2013.

Michelle Tessier, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When Genevieve "Evie" Shawcroft came into the world just over a year ago, she likely didn't hear much of what was going on.

The sandy-haired, blue-eyed baby girl was born with mild-to-moderate hearing loss, giving her what doctors said was little chance of normal development without the help of hearing aids.

But the estimated $3,000 to $5,000 cost for the unexpected equipment and additional doctor visits was almost more to bear than the diagnosis itself, said Evie's mom, Ashley Shawcroft.

The Tooele family had already endured mounting medical bills and was making payments on a high insurance deductible resulting from an accidental injury earlier that same year. And, as with many insurance plans, hearing aids aren't a covered benefit.

"All of a sudden you have a brand new baby and then this diagnosis, and I was worried about that, but the financial costs, too, it was a lot to worry about," Shawcroft, a registered nurse, said.

She began scrambling for available resources and possible charity programs to help their cause, and came across a Deseret News article about a relatively new Children's Hearing Aid Pilot Program, which was approved by Utah lawmakers in 2013 and is enrolling children up to age 3 for free hearing aids.

Evie had failed the newborn hearing screening and two follow-up tests after that. It remains unknown what caused her hearing loss, but she fit the bill for the state program and was approved with a set of hearing aids at about 8 months old.

Up to that point, she had been fortunate enough to use a pair on loan from her audiologist.

"You need to hear sounds to be able to acquire speech and language and speech and language are the basis for communication for many people," said Dr. Stephanie McVicar, a certified audiologist and director of early hearing detection and intervention for the Utah Department of Health, which oversees the program. "Without speech and language, it isolates the children and really limits them socially and in their learning abilities."

She said the sooner the auditory system gets stimulation — by hearing sounds — the better and more ready the system is for speech and language.

"If you miss this window, you are always playing catch-up and the child may never have clear speech," McVicar said. "Children need to hear words thousands of times before they can process those sounds, before they can say them and put them into words and then recognize them in written form."

The Children's Hearing Aid Pilot Program is nearly halfway through its two-year trial period and has placed 29 hearing aids on 19 Utah children, including little Evie.

The help came at the right time. "It was such a relief," Shawcroft said.

Without the program, she said, the family would have had to pay with a credit card, because they couldn't stand in the way of their daughter's development.

"It's very hard when you get that diagnosis, it's just a shock and it kind of rocks your world," Shawcroft said. "I remember a phase where we were banging pots and pans and waiting for her to blink to tell us she heard something."

The now-toddler is walking and communicating at her level, saying her dog's name, "Mom" and "Dad," and "cracker." She's learning a bit of American Sign Language and her two older sisters are picking it up as well.

"The whole family is learning," Shawcroft said, adding that she's seeking support from other parents with deaf infants and participating in other interventional programs the state offers through the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind, which conducts home visits and periodic assessments with deaf children in the state.

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