Interview with Heather Whitestone McCallum (HWM) Miss America 1995, Cochlear Implant Candidate
AO/Beck: Heather, it is an honor to meet you. Thank you so much for your time this morning (August 6, 2002).
HWM: Thank you too Dr. Beck. I am happy to meet you - I have read about hearing loss on your Web sites, and they are very good!
AO/Beck: Thank you. If I may, I'd like to start by reviewing a little of your biographical information, and then we'll talk about the cochlear implant surgery - which you'll be receiving August 7, 2002, here in Baltimore, at Johns Hopkins.
HWM: Sure, that would be great!
AO/Beck: You had a wonderful and exciting reign as Miss America, and in fact, I think you're among the three or four most popular Miss America's of all time. I wonder, what was the best thing about being Miss America?
HWM: The best thing was that being Miss America gave me the opportunity to bring a positive awareness to other people about the deaf community. We all have a heart and a mind, and we're more than just hearing or deaf people! Being Miss America gave me an opportunity to teach the world about deaf people and that deaf people can speak too!
AO/Beck: And what was the worst part?
HWM: The worst part was that there were almost no days off! I traveled 20 thousand miles per month and I went home only three times that year, and so it does really make you tired!
AO/Beck: And when you were Miss America, where was home?
HWM: During my time as Miss America, I lived in Alabama and now I live in Georgia.
AO/Beck: If I recall correctly, you're married and have two young sons?
HWM: My husband is John McCallum. I met him while he was working for the Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. We met in Washington DC and we didn't started dating seriously until a month after I gave up my title, and then soon after that we got engaged. We now have two boys, one is two years old, and the other is 13 months old. The second one was a surprise!
AO/Beck: Obviously that makes you even busier! But I have good news - it gets much easier as they get older!
HWM: Thank you - I am very glad to hear that!
AO/Beck: Heather, can you tell me about the origin of your hearing loss?
HWM: Yes. I was about 18 months old in the early 1970s, and I had a very high fever, I was very sick and almost died. The doctor gave me medicine, which saved my life, but resulted in my hearing loss because the medicine was ototoxic. Apparently, they don't use that medicine anymore. We don't really know the exact story, but that's the best version I know.
AO/Beck: So it wasn't meningitis, or a familial or hereditary issue?
HWM: No, it's all just a theory, but we think it was the medicine.
AO/Beck: Was there any history of hearing loss in the family, such as your mom, dad, or aunts, uncles, grandmothers, or grandfathers?
HWM: No, none that we know of.
AO/Beck: How was the hearing loss diagnosed?
HWM: About one or two months after the illness, my mom and daddy hadn't noticed that I was deaf. But on Christmas Day, my mom dropped a few pots and pans and it scared everybody - but they noticed that I didn't stop playing with my toys. My grandmother was actually the one who noticed my non-reaction, and she said to my mom Daphne, I believe Heather is deaf. My mom didn't want to believe that, and she grabbed a spoon and a pot, and started banging them together - and of course, I didn't react at all.
AO/Beck: That must've been very frightening for your mom and the rest of the family too.
HWM: Yes it was. My mom is a schoolteacher, and she had never dealt with deafness before, so this was new for all of us! They took me to a really good doctor in Alabama, and the doctor and the audiologist determined that I was profoundly deaf. The doctor recommended that I learn sign language. My mom bought a book, and we started working on sign language. After she had researched sign language for a year, and really learned a lot, she decided to send me to public school to be mainstreamed.
AO/Beck: What is your earliest recollection of being a deaf child in school? Did you have any special support services?
HWM: I was in the regular classroom and I was the only deaf child. We got a little support, but mom really had to fight. I recall first grade very well. I remember comparing my paper to my best friend's paper, and I was way behind. When I looked at her paper, I noticed that she had a much better vocabulary, more words, and she was getting the information completely, but I was just getting a little here and there. I also can recall the other kids staring at me because of the wires and the hearing aids. That was difficult sometimes.
AO/Beck: Based on the gesture you just made, the hearing aid you described was a body aid?
HWM: Yes, in my earliest days, that's what I wore, a body aid with cords and ear molds attached to my ears. In second grade, school was much better. I had an FM system, and I could hear better because the teacher spoke right into the microphone. The FM system was very good, but it was large and heavy back in those days! I also recall that in second grade there was a fire drill, and all of the kids heard it, except me. We had to leave the class, and even though I was wearing the FM system, I didn't hear the fire alarm. Another second grade memory was that I asked the teacher why all the kids stared at me? The teacher had a little extra education regarding teaching deaf children, and she said to me They are all jealous because they think the wires and cords mean you're listening to the radio! She was very good. Then when I was in third or fourth grade I switched over to Behind-The-Ear (BTE) hearing aids.
AO/Beck: How did your deafness impact the family?
HWM: My childhood was pretty normal, other than being deaf! I have two older sisters and my mom treated us all the same.
AO/Beck: So she would just have to be sure to get your attention before saying Heather, clean up your room!
HWM: Yes, exactly! Seriously, I think it was difficult for her, but the other girls in the family treated me like a nosy little sister - which is what I was! We had all the regular sister fights and issues when I was little. But they were based on being sisters, not deaf and hearing sisters, just sisters! My mom really was OK with the whole ordeal. By the time I was in high school the differences were becoming more apparent and I was treated a little differently from my sisters - but not in a negative way. As adults, we are more aware of deafness, and so we act and react to it differently, perhaps more gently sometimes.
AO/Beck: What type of hearing aids and FM systems did you use during your time as Miss America?
HWM: During my year as Miss America, I used the portable FM system by Phonak, and that really allowed me to converse in difficult listening situations, and it allowed me to hear the questions and conversations in noisy areas too. I currently wear a Starkey Sequel in my left ear, and that's how I am listening to you right now, along with reading your lips.
AO/Beck: What was it that recently made you consider, and subsequently decide to get a cochlear implant?
HWM: Ever since I became Miss America, doctors and friends have told me that I really should think about cochlear implants. But you have to understand that even though I am profoundly deaf, I was very satisfied with my hearing aids. I was able to talk to my family on the phone, and I could communicate with most people too, even the media at receptions - and that can be very difficult. So I was really happy about the hearing aids I used, and I was skeptical about cochlear implants too! But when I had my two boys, things changed. When I became a mom, especially when the boys started to walk - and they would walk away from me when we were talking - I had to depend on my hearing aid more and more to understand them, and that really made me think about the limits of my hearing with my hearing aids. Also, I want to hear all the words he says! As a matter of fact, his first word was mama. And we really had a great time with that! Another thing was that when the boys speak to me from behind me, I cannot hear them. I can hear sirens and horns, and other environmental sounds too, but I cannot always hear my children, and that was the primary reason I started to think about a cochlear implant.
One day, my older son was outside on the back patio, and I was inside. I saw my husband going outside towards the patio, and I asked him what he was doing. He said our son was crying, he had fallen down, and I had no idea that anything had happened. So at that point I asked God to please give me more hearing so I could better take care of the boys. I didn't want anyone else to have to take care of the boys, and I want to hear everything.
AO/Beck: Heather, I think cochlear implants were, and still are, a major issue for many people in the deaf community. Particularly, I think the argument is that if you're born deaf, that's the way you are and you should be content with that, and you should belong to the deaf community. Additionally, for those who seek cochlear implants, the thought is that they have turned their back on the deaf community, and perhaps that is an insult or a rejection to the deaf community. Do you have any thoughts on that?
HWM: Well yes. I was not born deaf, but I can understand the issue. I don't know why, but I think cochlear implants are much more acceptable now than they were in the 1980s and the 1990s, and I think there are more and more positives about cochlear implants now. Maybe because people are more used to cochlear implants, or maybe because the cochlear implants available now are so good. But having said that, I also must say that I believe deafness is a blessing from God. It's not wonderful to be deaf - it is frustrating, and it's hard. But I do believe God allows people to become deaf for a good reason and so I look at it as a blessing. I also believe that God gives some of us a chance to hear more, and that too is a blessing!
AO/Beck: Can you tell me who your surgeon will be tomorrow?
HWM: Yes, Dr. John Niparko is the surgeon at Johns Hopkins, here in Baltimore. I asked a lot of people, and there are many good doctors out there. But I chose Dr. Niparko because his name was mentioned many times as an excellent surgeon, and because he is fairly close to my home in Atlanta.
AO/Beck: Well, he's a very good choice. Dr. Niparko has a fantastic book on cochlear implants and he is highly respected by his colleagues in neurotology and audiology. Are you at all nervous about your surgery tomorrow?
HWM: Well yes, a little nervous. I am really looking forward to getting it all finished and having the cochlear implant!
AO/Beck: Which ear will you have implanted?
HWM: My right ear will be implanted with a Nucleus 24 Contour cochlear implant. At this time, and for the last few years, I've worn a hearing aid on my left ear. I will still use the hearing aid on the left ear when I want to. The other thing is that when I wore a hearing aid on my right ear, it really was painful for me, the sound seems like it is pounding in the right ear when I listen to sound on the right ear using a hearing aid.
AO/Beck: Do you have any thoughts on being a deaf person in America?
HWM: Yes, deaf and hearing people too, are lucky and are blessed to live in America. Our opportunities and our freedoms are far greater here, than anywhere else in the world. We have so many caring and compassionate people in the USA that we are fortunate, and we work together as a team, and we are blessed.
AO/Beck: Do you have any thoughts for young girls that aspire to be Miss America?
HWM: I tell children and other people that God has a plan for everyone. As long as you work hard, your dreams will come true. You must think positively. Your dreams may not be fulfilled exactly as you desire, but other things will happen that will be better, and you will succeed.
AO/Beck: Would it be OK to get together again, perhaps three to six months after you get the cochlear implant activated? At that time we can talk about your experiences with the cochlear implant surgery, the activation, your aural rehabilitation program and your early successes?
HWM: That would be fantastic, I would enjoy that very much.
AO/Beck: Thank you so much for your time and again, it really is fantastic to meet you and to spend some time with you. I wish you all the best for the big day tomorrow, and I know you will do fantastic, and I really look forward to the next time we can get together.
HWM: Thank you very much. It's been nice to meet you too.
For more information on cochlear implants, CLICK HERE.
For more information on FM systems and Phonak hearing aids, CLICK HERE.
For more information on STARKEY hearing aids, CLICK HERE.
For more information on Cochlear click here.
Click here to visit the Cochlear website.
For more information on Phonak click here.
Click here to visit the Phonak website.
For more information on Starkey click here.
Click here to visit the Starkey website.