Jace Wolfe, PhD, is Director of Audiology at Hearts for Hearing, a non-profit foundation in Oklahoma City, and Adjunct Professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
Pediatric audiology can be a tough gig. It's no fun to tell a new mother her baby has a hearing loss. Our patients often cannot tell us much about what they can or can't hear or whether we've programmed their hearing technology appropriately; it seems as though technology changes on a daily basis, which is a good thing, but it sure can be tough to keep up.
With the critical period of speech and language development being quite short, an erroneous diagnosis or inappropriately programmed hearing device can lead to permanent disability. It's no wonder that even the best pediatric audiologists may question why we do what we do. About a year ago, I was provided with the best possible reminder of the importance of our work.
Last year, my family welcomed the newest member to the Wolfe family. If Henley's entry into the world is any indication of the rest of her life, then we are in for quite a ride. My wife, Lynnette, had labor contractions with Henley about 11 weeks before her due date, and was on bed rest and received shots to prevent pre-term labor from that point forward. We made it to full-term and went to the hospital on a Sunday in active labor.
Everything was going pretty smoothly (at least from a husband's perspective), and from the nurse's estimate, it appeared that Henley's arrival was no more than a few hours away. We were making small talk with family in the delivery room when one of the nurses rushed into the room and asked all family to leave. The monitors on Lynnette's abdomen had lost Henley's heartbeat.
The nurse had Lynnette quickly turn on each side and then get on her knees, but the changes in position did not bring a change in Henley's condition. The anesthesiologist was called into the room, and the nurse placed a different probe to measure Henley's heart rate. After a quick moment to let the second probe obtain a reading, the nurse said our baby had “flat-lined” and ordered her assistant and the anesthesiologist to hurry to the O.R. for an emergency C-section.
As we rushed down the hall, the anesthesiologist told the nurse, “We've got three minutes.” Our obstetrician had been called for a delivery to a different hospital, but by the grace of God, another doctor was on hand. They gave me a set of scrubs to dress into before I could go into the surgery area and then pushed the bed through the O.R. doors.
When I stepped into the operating area, the first thing I saw was the doctor lifting Henley off of the table. She was lifeless and blue from head to toe. A delivery nurse took Henley over to an exam table, suctioned her nose and mouth, began massaging her body, and gently shaking her, while saying, “Come on little girl, wake up for me.” At first, Henley did not respond at all, but after a minute, she coughed and started crying and turned a beautiful shade of pink.
There was not a dry eye in the room of seasoned professionals. The surgeon and anesthesiologist took great care of Lynnette, and although she lost quite a bit of blood and needed a transfusion, she's doing remarkably well now. By the way, they rolled Lynnette out of the delivery room at 1:25 pm. Henley was born at 1:28 pm. Exactly three minutes!
The next day, the surgeon told me that she was in another delivery room and felt compelled to leave that room to go check in at the nurses' station. She noted that she wasn't sure why she left her patient. She said she knew her patient was still quite a ways from delivery, but under normal circumstances, she would have stayed in the room. Instead, she felt a calling to go to the nurses' station. That's when she saw the code on Henley's monitor and realized she was being rushed to surgery.
The surgeon was under the impression that our doctor was with us, but she still went to the O.R. to see if her help was needed. Of course, at that point, she ended up forever becoming a special part of our lives.
Although we might not always hear or feel it, I believe that our patients and their families are thankful that we are there for them when they need us the most. Henley's nurses and doctors will forever be my heroes. They saved her life.
Pediatric audiologists are heroes as well. We give the gift of sound and spoken language to children with hearing loss and their families. There aren't very many jobs in which you can change someone's life for the better every day that you go to work. A pediatric audiologist can certainly make that claim. The next time things get a little hectic and harried in the clinic, I ask you to remember the profound importance of our work. We're changing lives. We're superheroes.