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The Sounds of St. Andrew's

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Luis Mendivil sits in a wooden chair in St. Andrew’s Church in Nogales, Ariz., palms gripped tightly to its sides and feet swinging freely in high arcs.

It’s 12:28 p.m.

He’s anxious. His mother sees it, and covers her mouth with her index finger as she thinks he’s just about to belt out another high decibel yelp. He does, and she covers her mouth with her hand this time and tears bunch up in the corners of her eyes, but do not fall.

Luis, at only 5 years old, doesn’t seem to understand what all the commotion is about. And for four years, he hasn’t known what commotion sounds like.

At age 1, Luis went deaf and hasn’t heard since until today.

“Luis?” He doesn’t respond. His head jerks in half a dozen directions almost simultaneously and he yelps again, lower than higher and shrilly.


His eyes snap up to the face of Lizette Gamas who works for Arizona Hearing Specialists in Tucson. A smile spreads across her face as she asks him, “mescuchas?” Are you listening?

He nods his head furiously.

Elba Yanet Mendivil Valenzuela, places both of her hands over her mouth and can’t hold back her tears any longer. She had never heard him speak.

“I’m so happy,” Valenzuela says, "I've been waiting for this day for five years."

And then she slides up alongside Luis. Gamas pats Luis’ head as audiologist Greg Swingle fiddles with the pitch and volume of Luis’ hearing aid. Luis is the only child recieving an implant today.

“It takes about one month after we take a mold of their ears and ship them out before we have a finished hearing aid,” Swingle said.

According to doctors in the audiology wing of St. Andrew’s, the silicon molds are used to mount the implants into a cotton block so as to fit comfortably inside a child’s ear. The building process is turned over to the Starkey Hearing Foundation once the impressions of a child’s ears are taken. They produce and donate the implants to St. Andrew’s Children's Clinic free-of-charge.

Today is Luis’s fitting, and he has much to do before Elba can take him home.

Luis runs 10 steps ahead of his mother, a look of surprised content on his face. The cacophony of St. Andrew’s all around him are the first sounds he’s heard since 2004.

The two hurry to the speech specialists who have set up shop in the priests' offices on the opposite side of the church.

It’s 1:25 p.m.

Roxana Holgun greets the two of them in a flurry in a little classroom. She’s flustered and grabs for a Sesame Street toy the instant Luis shows an interest in it to get his attention. For what she’s about to teach him, she’ll need all of his focus on her.

“Ohhh." Holgun forms a perfect “o” with her mouth and Luis imitates.

“Mmm.” Holgun purses her lips together and hums the phonetic “m” and Luis does the same shaking his head from left to right.

“It’s important for Luis to vocalize,” Holgun said, “He’s never had experience with imitation to know how to communicate verbally.”

Holgun and Luis move on to simple hand gestures so that Luis has a way of communicating with Elba and other family members in the meantime.

“Yo,” says Holfun, bringing a hand to the chest; “quiero”, two outstretched hands grasp and pull back toward the body; “mas”, the fingers of her hand touch and arch in the middle to form the arcs of an “m”. Elba follows along. Every time Luis completes a gesture, Holgun cheers, “Bravo!” and lets him play with the toy or blows bubbles.

But it’s hard to hold Luis’ attention for too long. Sometimes he’s disinterested, or has to be brought back so that Holgun can repeat a sign.

"Visual attention is so important in deaf and hearing-impaired children," Holgun says, "If he’s all over the place and I think I’m doing a good job at keeping things interesting, then who knows how things will work at home where no one is trained for this type of teaching."

According to Holgun, instilling behaviors starts with watching and matching what’s seen with what’s being heard through his ears. He never could listen and now he has to, Holgun said.

“These are just imitations of words, not a standard,” Holgun said. “It’s important to the family that they can communicate with Luis, and over time he’ll develop an understanding for the words themselves.”

As Holgun wipes her hands on her pants, Luis hops off his stool and grasps Elba’s hand. They round the corner of the classroom and for a second, there’s just the sound of an electronic voice spouting phonetics from the room down the hall.

It’s 2:04 p.m.

One final series of yelps fires off. Luis creeps back around and waves goodbye from the door frame.

Written by Charles Golestani You are reading The Sounds of St. Andrew's articles

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