Hearing the call: sisters plan to help the disabled

By James Saxton
Times Correspondent

“I want to give back. I was given, and I want to give back.”

That is the driving attitude of Paula Drake, a freshman at Mercer University in Macon and daughter of Larry and Traci Drake of Locust Grove. Paula was born with hearing that at age 4 began to recede over four years. By second grade, even while wearing hearing aids, she was practically deaf, relying on mostly lip reading and some sign language – and occasional jotted notes from a best friend when a teacher spoke with her back turned – for communication with the general school population.

Paula Drake, left, a freshman from Locust Grove at Mercer University in Macon who is able to hear using a cochlear implant, plans to help others with physical and medical disabilities as a bio-medical engineering student. Her younger sister Diana, right, a sophomore at Strong Rock Christian School in Locust Grove, plans a career in audiology to help the hearing impaired. Special photo

With her hearing having receded to almost none, the summer after second grade was a really hard time, Paula said. “I spent the whole summer in my room reading. I was always outgoing before, but then, whenever my mom would try to get me to socialize, I’d just close my eyes so I couldn’t see what she was saying. I wouldn’t spend any time with my little sisters. I became an awful person.”

But Paula was told she was a prime candidate for a surgical procedure that offered hope. Because she had some hearing as a child – and because her mother had required her to learn to play the piano, thus further training her brain about auditory sensations – Paula’s natural hearing mechanisms had matured, making her adjustment to artificial hearing easier.

The week before she entered the third grade, Paula got two cochlear implants – surgically implanted electronic devices that provide her a sense of sound. “They soon switched on the first (implant). My brain was trying to adjust because artificial hearing is very different. I was in speech therapy at the time, and after the second implant was turned on, within a month they took me out of speech therapy because I could talk and be understood. And I was hearing.”

The devices Paula uses bypass part of the normal hearing process, using a small microphone and electronics that reside outside, behind her ears, that transmit a signal to an array of electrodes deep inside her ears, placed in the cochlea, which stimulate the cochlear or “hearing” nerve that sends impulses to the brain. The device must be carefully adjusted for specific users in a process that audiologists call mapping or remapping. In time the auditory process becomes more precise.

The implants’ results were astonishing. Her extroverted behavior returned. Her new school, Strong Rock Christian School, where class sizes were smaller and she could get a fresh start, helped boost her grades. Today she is able to carry on normal conversations over the phone, look at her notes while listening to a professor, and hear the instructions in computer-based learning.

Paula Drake, then a senior, gleefully climbs aboard her then-freshman sister Diana during a softball game last year at Strong Rock Christian School in Locust Grove. After Paula endured childhood hearing deficits, the sisters are each determined to pursue vocations that medically help others. Special photo

Her mother, Traci, remembers those days well. “I got a sense that it was going to be a lot better when, just one month after they activated her (implants), on the way home as my husband Larry and I were talking in a normal tone, from the back of our minivan I heard Paula say, ‘Would y’all please lower your voice?’ Yep, we said, it’s all worth it.”

And Paula Drake, 19, wants to become better so she can help others become better.

The second-semester Mercer freshman is, through a five-year-program, pursuing a master’s degree in the growing field of biomedical engineering, which applies engineering and design to physiology for healthcare purposes.

“There’s so many ways that my degree can help people. Prosthetics is one of those ways, among many. Right now, for instance, there are teams (in the biomedical engineering field) who are trying to use three-dimensional printers to print a (functional artificial) heart. I’d love to be able to do that.”

It’s more than adversity from struggles to compete with normally hearing children that has driven Paula, she said. “I’ve been told by people outside my family that I couldn’t do something. My joke is, ‘What fuels me most is spite.’ If somebody tells me I can’t do something, I want to go do it. I want to help others with disabilities have opportunity like I’m able to have.”

That’s the same spirit abundantly obvious in Paula’s 16-year-old sister Diana, a sophomore at Strong Rock, who says after high school she wants to pursue audiology, the science of hearing. “It’s just something I’ve grown up with,” Diana said, as she accompanied Paula in those remapping sessions with an audiologist. “I’m used to it; it’s not odd to me. It’s so interesting. My heart is open to people with hearing problems like that. It’s what I want to do. I know it’ll be hard, but I’m not going to let all the learning intimidate me. I just want to help others.”

“My mom showed me a video of a baby getting his implant switched on for the first time, and he looked so happy when he could actually hear his parents, and I just sat there and cried. It was so beautiful. I want to do that. It makes me really excited. I want to do it, and do it well.”

Diana said her friends are puzzled when she tells them her dream and answers their questions on what an audiologist does. “‘Why do you want to do that?’ they ask me. I say, ‘Because I get to help my sister, and people like her.’”

How does a mother react to such selfless pursuits in her daughters? “They’re such great kids, they really are,” said Traci Drake, her voice cracking. “You know, because of all the hardship, they are going to be able to use it to help other people. That brings me joy.”