Written by: Ali Phaneuf
"I love you," Anne DeForge told the Starkey Cares hearing specialist on her 4th day at the 2022 USA Games in Orlando, Fl. At just two years old, Anne's family discovered that she was deaf in her right ear; but it wasn't until she visited the Healthy Athletes station that Anne discovered there was a hearing aid to combat this.
"She was pretty much raised by my mother," said her sister, Nicole. ''And as far as I was aware there wasn't anything that was offered because it was complete hearing loss in that right side, and I don't think this technology was available."
Anne was given a CROS (contralateral routing of signals) hearing aid, which essentially has a transmitter on Anne's right side that detects sound and wirelessly transfers it to the aid on her ''good" ear. Because Anne is completely deaf in her right ear, the CROS system doesn't make the sound louder, it seamlessly transmits it to her left ear.
"All of this technology, if it wasn't for Special Olympics and for Starkey being there, we would have no idea this existed," said Nicole.
The aids even come with a corresponding app that allows Anne to control how much sound is being transferred. For example, if Anne's at a basketball game, and there's a lot of cheering or background noise coming in from her right side, she might want to reduce the amount of sound being transmitted. Additionally, the app comes with Bluetooth capabilities so Anne doesn't have to hold her phone to her left ear anymore, she can just listen through her hearing aids (functioning similarly to wireless headphones). It even tracks her fitness and step count, ''it's like a Fitbit, but for her ear," said Nicole.
From the Starkey Cares team, to Anne's sisters, to Anne herself, tears were flowing and smiles spread from ear to ear. Being able to finally hear sounds from her right side opened a whole new world for Anne, who had previously struggled to hear people when they spoke to her.
''I couldn't hear a lot of noises," she said. And when Anne tried to listen to teammate Gabrielle Ducharme when she sat next to her, ''I couldn't hear Gabby at all."
According to Special Olympics, for every 10 athletes on a team, two have potential hearing loss. As one swimmer on a team of five, Anne is a true reflection of this statistic and the effect it has on the Special Olympics community. Thanks to Special Olympics' partnership with Starkey Hearing, Anne was able to receive her hearing test and aids for free.
Hearing sounds from her right side for the first time, ''felt really good," said Anne.
Starkey's follow-up with Anne was almost as heart-warming as when Anne first heard sound from her right side -- they called Nicole the next day to see if the technology was working okay, and followed up again a few times after that. Starkey employees even went to see Anne swim the day after she received her hearing aids, bearing a sign that said, ''cheers to new ears."
This was also the day that Anne received the gold medal for her 50M freestyle event. When you ask Anne what her favorite part of USA Games was, she'll first tell you, ''Getting the gold. Coach Lexi told me to swim fast, and I did." But she'll then tell you that her second favorite part was, ''getting my hearing aids."
The Healthy Athletes initiative is dedicated to providing health services and education to Special Olympics athletes and their families. It is revolutionizing the way health systems interact with people with intellectual disabilities and closing the healthcare inequality gap.
With tears in her eyes after a long week of riding the emotional roller coaster of USA Games, Nicole barely made the words out to express her gratitude for the Healthy Athletes initiative.
"I try to do the best for Anne since my mom passed away," she said. "We all always try to do the best for her; and to know that there was something out there that we weren't aware of, that Special Olympics brought to us, was just awesome."