Your Health

An ear-replaceable experience: How Pacific Hearing Service is serving an entire country by training one dedicated man


Courtesy of Barbara Beck
Zambian driver turned audiologist-in-training Sammy Fundiwa traveled to Los Altos to study how to take care of ears and hearing aids so that he can help his fellow villagers upon his return. Currently, 17 million Zambians rely on Entheos Audiology Cooperative clinics and the countrys lone audiologist to treat their ear problems.

Pacific Hearing Service in Los Altos is lending a hand – and an ear – as it trains the Zambian man set to become only the second audiologist in the African nation, which has a population of 17 million.

Sammy Fundiwa was a driver in his village of Chibombo, where the poverty level has normalized health care not as a necessity, but as a luxury. The Entheos Audiology Cooperative, which Pacific Hearing audiologists Deborah Clark and Jane Baxter joined in 2015, had traveled to Africa to provide hearing services to those who lived in and around Chibombo.

Entheos volunteers posted signs on trees nearby the facilities they used, which were often schools that would let the cooperative take over for a day. People walked up to eight miles to get their ears checked. To help spread the word, Fundiwa began translating for the cooperative.

While Fundiwa was transporting Entheos volunteers, including Clark and Baxter, he realized that at some point they would no longer be available to treat his people – and that’s part of the cooperative’s plan.

According to Baxter, Entheos trains the villagers to tend to their own health-care needs in three phases over a series of years, beginning with relief by building trust and getting to know residents; development and training; and empowerment and separation by ensuring that the community is self-sustaining and knows how to care for ears and, if necessary, hearing aids.

Now, Fundiwa is the first person from one of the Entheos humanitarian trip countries to travel to the U.S. for audiology training, Clark and Baxter confirmed.

Entheos plans to visit Zambia again next year, but this time Fundiwa will be handling screening tools instead of a steering wheel as an audiology assistant. He has been in California since early September, but he left his wife and children in Chibombo months before that with no real knowledge of what the U.S. was like in order to get proper training.

Fundiwa, a father to kids as young as 3 years old, believed that the U.S. was nothing more than a war zone; certainly, it was not a place he willingly wanted to go.

“What we see on television about America, what we hear about America, is very different than what is on the ground,” Fundiwa said. “One of the things that we have in our minds, that the television has created for us, is the image of America being evil … the guns, the killings, the crimes. You think, ‘The moment I get to America, I’m going to get attacked.’”

Fundiwa learned that his perception could not have been more wrong.

“It was not easy, but I had to convince them,” Fundiwa said of approaching his family to discuss traveling to the U.S. “Because of the challenge of having one audiologist for 17 million people, I had to explain to (my wife) and say, ‘Look at this huge problem that we have. Let me take this opportunity and just go.’”

Bringing help home

The sacrifice was worth it, Fundiwa said. After his training at Pacific Hearing wraps up at the end of November, he’s eager to return home to his family and homeland with his newfound knowledge. Once Fundiwa is working in Chibombo full time, more people will be educated on how to clean their ears, thus reducing infections.

In addition to routine ear care, Zambians must be taught hearing-aid maintenance, Clark and Baxter said, as they lack information on how to use and take care of the technology.

Another factor: Without sufficient medical attention for ear and hearing problems, many Zambians rely on homemade remedies or recommendations from mothers who have used a mix of natural treatments to heal their children.

The problem is that many of the remedies do more harm than good, Clark said. Fundiwa witnessed such a situation in Chibombo when a woman brought in her child during his hours observing a visiting doctor. A friend had advised her to pound tobacco and put it in her child’s ears every morning. The remedy caused the child to itch and cry out in pain for five years.

“The tobacco grew and it was so thick that the child could not hear anymore,” Fundiwa said. “When they removed it, they asked me to say to (the mother), ‘How do people survive here?’ It’s because people don’t have anywhere to go.”

There’s a phrase Baxter learned while in Zambia that translates in English to “It is paining me.” Residents of Chibombo are living with their pain because, with the exception of one humanitarian aid visit to their village a year, they have no other option.

“Because they don’t have medicine, they just have draining ears and infection. … They live with severe pain for years and years,” she said. “They also use sticks and chicken feathers to try to clean out the eardrum but end up puncturing it.”

Fundiwa said he is excited about all he has learned about audiology. He will continue to pursue his training as he assists in clinics, helping doctors speed up the process with tasks like making and fitting hearing-aid molds so that as many Zambians can be treated as possible.

“Some of these people have never seen doctors in their lives,” he said. “After seeing what (Clark and Baxter) were doing – the passion, the love, the care – I developed an interest. … I just decided to become a part of the group of people who bring help to my own people.”

Pacific Hearing Service is located at 496 First St., Suite 120, Los Altos. For more information, visit pacifichearingservice.com.

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