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Making connections: Audiologists hear the call for help locally and abroad


Courtesy of Deborah clark
Pacific Hearing Service audiologists Jane Baxter, back, from left, and Deborah Clark bring their audiology services pro bono to communities around the world such as Zambia, above.

Multiple celebrations are in order for Pacific Hearing Service.

As the business celebrates its 40th year at 496 First St. in Los Altos, it is expanding into the office space next door and its new nonprofit organization is up and running.

The practice has come a long way from its humble beginnings in an office on San Antonio Road with no running water. Pacific Hearing Service currently has six audiologists on staff, with another joining soon. It also has a busy office in Menlo Park.

Co-owner Jane H. Baxter, Au.D., manager of the Menlo Park office, grew up in Los Altos and attended Oak Avenue and Eastbrook elementary schools and Awalt (now Mountain View) High School. Co-owner Deborah Clark, Au.D., manager of the Los Altos office, is originally from Nashville.

Baxter and Clark believe that hearing affects all aspects of people’s lives.

“People often don’t understand the impact of hearing loss,” Clark said. “It’s sort of the invisible handicap – you can’t look at a person and know that they have hearing loss.”

She noted that Helen Keller said her loss of vision separated her from things, but her hearing loss separated her from people.

“It really is very isolating, so when you can give someone the ability to hear again, it really connects them with their family, it connects them with their friends,” she said. “They’re more able to get a job, they’re more connected at work.”

Baxter said that even with mild hearing loss, when things sound “mumbly” or fuzzy, “it’s much harder for your brain to focus. … And usually hearing loss is so gradual that people don’t even know. They think it’s the environment, or they think people really are mumbling.”

Education and awareness – and knowing that help is out there – are crucial, she said.

Nonprofit work

While Pacific Hearing Service is thriving, Baxter and Clark are equally excited about their new nonprofit organization, Pacific Hearing Connection, which aims to provide hearing health care to the underserved and underinsured in Northern California.

Baxter explained how the organization, which secured nonprofit status last October and has eight patients so far, came to be, adding that she and Clark have wanted to do humanitarian work for many years.

At their American Academy of Audiology meetings, they attended events where they learned about the great need for audiologists around the world. They joined forces with Entheos Audiology Cooperative, a collective of private-practice audiologists who do humanitarian work. After a few international trips, Baxter and Clark thought about people in their own neighborhoods who couldn’t get hearing aids and set about to serve local residents who fall through the cracks.

The limitations of Medi-Cal provided further impetus for the project.

“There are a lot of people who don’t qualify for Medi-Cal but can’t afford hearing aids,” Clark said, noting that the wealthy can afford them, and Medi-Cal patients can get them at no charge from the state. “Then there would be this group of people in the middle, who don’t quite qualify for Medi-Cal, but really couldn’t (afford them).”

Pacific Hearing Connection uses a sliding scale based on the federal poverty level. The fee for hearing aids begins at $100, plus mandatory volunteer hours. Baxter said the less the patients pay, the more volunteer hours they are required to contribute.

“People with hearing loss tend to get isolated and withdrawn, and sometimes their self-esteem can be affected,” Baxter said. “So we want to build up their self-esteem. We don’t just give them the hearing aid – they also have to give back to the community.”

Clark echoed the words of the founder of Entheos, Nora Stewart: “‘We don’t give people a hand out, we give them a hand up.’ And that’s part of the whole thing with the giving back – what we call the circle of giving. If it’s something they’re working for, they value it more, but also feel better about themselves by making that contribution. When they do their volunteer work, they kind of light up.”

Pacific Hearing Connection accepts donations of hearing aids as well as financial contributions.

Humanitarian trips

In conjunction with Entheos, Baxter and/or Clark have volunteered their services in Zambia, Mozambique, Jordan, the West Bank and Guatemala. Baxter makes three or four trips per year and will soon add Ecuador to the list.

“I’ve been working Saturdays and evenings so that I don’t get too backed up,” she said of balancing the trips with her busy patient schedule at Pacific Hearing Service. “I’m at the point in my life that I’m really ready for this. It’s made me a better audiologist locally, because I find I’m more excited, more interested in helping people.”

The humanitarian trips also are important to Clark.

“It really does change your way of thinking when you go to a place like Africa or Jordan, and you see how different their lives are,” she said. “It kind of helps you reset your priorities.”

Through their international humanitarian trips, the women have helped thousands of people. They’ve been especially moved by their experiences in refugee camps.

“(The people) will wait in the sun all day with their little kids – nobody complains,” Baxter said. “We’ve been working with the Syrians lately. They’ve lost their hearing, their homeland and they just have nothing.”

“Everywhere you go, there are people that haunt you,” Clark said. “It’s an amazing, wonderful experience because you help all these people and you feel so excited about that.”

But then there are others they can’t help, like the children whose hearing loss is too profound for hearing aids and who require surgery their countries currently are not equipped to give them. Clark said that in a Mozambique hospital, they left a list of kids who should receive cochlear implants if that becomes a possibility someday.

“There’s a lot of HIV, a lot of malaria that they treat with quinine, which causes deafness,” Baxter said.

“So those are the ones you carry with you,” Clark said.

For more information on Baxter and Clark’s work, visit pacifichearingservice.com and pacifichearingconnection.org.

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