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Signia Conversation - March 2024

Interview with Shawnae Jebbia, Miss USA 1998

Shawnae Jebbia

August 10, 2009

Topic: Inspiring Others to Seek Early Treatment for Hearing Loss

Shawnae Jebbia

CAROLYN SMAKA: I'm joined by Associate Editor Kristi Albers, and we're speaking with Shawnae Jebbia, Miss USA, 1998. Welcome, Shawnae.

KRISTI ALBERS: Thanks for speaking with us today, Shawnae.

SHAWNAE JEBBIA: Thank you Carolyn and Kristi, it's great to have the opportunity to speak with you.

SMAKA: Shawnae, how did you first notice your hearing loss?

JEBBIA: My realization that I had hearing loss was progressive over a year or two. I began to notice things weren't right during the end of my reign as Miss USA. For the first couple of months I wrote it off as the result of having been sick with a cold, combined with an intense travel and appearance schedule. I became more concerned once I got over the cold, because I still wasn't hearing as clearly as before.

When I had the cold I found myself constantly apologizing for not hearing and giving the explanation that my head was really stuffy. I said that for a couple of months, until my manager for Miss USA pointed out that I was over the cold and I was still having difficulty and "stuffy ears". As time went on, I kept noticing that, in a lot of situations, I'd have to ask people to repeat and that I'd keep inching closer to whomever I was speaking with in the effort to hear them.

After my reign was over, I went to an otolaryngologist (ENT) to find out what was going on. At my first visit to the doctor, I read a brochure in the waiting room that had suggestions to make communication easier for a person with hearing loss. One that hit home with me was the suggestion to ask people to rephrase what they're saying rather than asking for repetition. I knew from my own experiences that merely having someone repeat the same phrase can be frustrating. That's when the fact that I have a hearing loss really hit home;with the realization that I have to employ compensation strategies for people with hearing loss, because I'm a person with hearing loss too.

With the ENT, I went through a lot of testing that encompassed my whole hearing system, from a basic ear exam to an MRI. At the end of the testing, there was no clear-cut diagnosis as to what exactly was wrong. We also looked at my symptoms. I had ringing in the ears and a mild fluctuating hearing loss. I also noticed that if I had a little bit of extra water weight on me, my hearing would be noticeably less clear. Since Meniere's disease in many cases is a diagnosis of exclusion, the fact that all the other tests came back normal combined with the symptoms I was experiencing led my ENT to strongly suspect Meniere's disease. Once we had a diagnosis, the time came to see what I needed to do to take advantage of the hearing I had left. Since the work I do revolves around speaking and listening to a diverse spectrum of people, that was a key issue for me. My audiologist talked to me at the outset about the advantages of amplification to both maximize my residual hearing, as well as to ensure I maintained my speaking skills, and I am glad I took his advice to heart.

SMAKA: You were motivated to address your hearing loss almost immediately, but a lot of people wait to obtain hearing aids, sometimes even for years. Was waiting ever an option for you?

JEBBIA: I'm sure everyone has feelings of hesitation when trying anything new, hearing aids included, and has moments of wanting to retreat. Being diagnosed with Meniere's disease and being told that hearing aids were going to be a necessity was stressful, but I knew that for both personal and professional reasons, it was in my best interest to move forward.

Some people who choose to wait may be in a comfortable environment with a close network of supportive friends and family. Friends and family, because they love you, will make allowances for you, speak up for you, translate for you and understand when you can't hear something. My family lived on the other side of the country from me, and the bulk of my daily interactions were in a very public setting. At first, I was self-conscious about my hearing loss. In a professional environment, even people who know and like you can be impatient if you seem to be "off your game," and people who you don't deal with can be understandably less patient. I had people flat out ask what was wrong with me and why wasn't I hearing what was going on. Then, the occasional person would jokingly ask me if I had selective hearing, and that hurt. I would become very frustrated when I would be just dismissed as aloof or ignoring people. They didn't realize that I wasn't purposefully ignoring them but, just like people with normal hearing, sometimes I'll tune out because I'm reading something or focusing on something. What people also don't understand is that if there is a lot of background noise, people with hearing loss will have more difficulty. So, since I didn't have a lot of friends and family close by, it was extra frustrating, because the people I dealt with on a daily basis did not understand what was going on. This was very motivating for me to deal with my hearing loss, and seek treatment with hearing aids sooner, as advised by my audiologist, rather than later.

ALBERS: What was your experience like when you first started wearing hearing aids?

JEBBIA: When I was first fit with hearing aids ten years ago, I insisted upon Completely-in-the-Canal (CIC) models as I wanted them as inconspicuous as possible. However, my ear canals are so small that CICs weren't necessarily the best fit for me. I went through a lot of worrying about aesthetics at first, but I got so frustrated with the sound that I then switched to BTEs. Today, working with my audiologist, we found that Siemens Pure® 700 hearing instruments coupled with the Siemens Tek® wireless enhancement was the perfect combination for me of discreet, comfortable devices that perform extremely well.

Oh, there were so many sounds that I noticed again when I first started wearing these. I noticed improvement in the ability to hear my friends, even when there would be background noise in the room, like water running in the sink, when they were talking to me. Or hearing that I forgot to turn off the sink when I've left the kitchen. One thing that I've discovered since I've had my Pure hearing instruments are the happy sounds my dog makes when I pet him. I never knew that he was so loud! One of the best things that's happened so far is when my friend's young daughter told me she wanted to whisper something in my ear. My first instinct was to stop her and tell her I needed to see her face when she spoke to me, but I decided to let her whisper in my ear and see what happened. She whispered, "I love you," and I actually heard it with my hearing aids. Those little intimate moments are what I appreciate the most.

ALBERS: Shawnae, you mentioned trying the CIC style first because you were sensitive about the appearance of hearing aids. Now that discreet, fashionable styles are available, do you think people will start to see hearing aids as an accessory rather than something to hide?

JEBBIA: Oh, absolutely. The fun part about wearing hearing aids today is that they're so pretty now. Hopefully people won't wait until they are to the point of frustration before they choose to wear hearing aids that are appropriate for their hearing loss. Because things were different 10 years ago, it took until I got completely fed up trying to listen with my CICs before I switched to a BTE style. When I made the switch to BTEs, I went from trying to be as discreet as possible to pulling my hair back and wanting to be noticed when wearing my hearing aids. My reason was that I found people understood why I was having difficulty if they saw that I had hearing aids in my ears. I went from completely embarrassed, wanting the smallest device possible, to wearing whatever was needed to hear well. Now, having the small and discreet Pure hearing instruments was strange at first because they're so cute, I worried it might be a step backwards. Of course that wasn't the case. So again, I went from noticeable hearing aids - my old BTEs - to wearing Pure. Wearing my Pure hearing instruments, even when I point them out to people they have a hard time noticing them! They're practically invisible unless you stare directly at someone's ears. I hope solutions like Pure will motivate people to seek treatment for their hearing loss as soon as they notice it.

SMAKA: You mention working closely with your audiologist. What was that experience like?

JEBBIA: When I talk about Charlie, my audiologist at HearUSA, it kind of gets me choked up. Charlie is the first professional who sat me down and asked how I was doing emotionally. I've answered plenty of questions regarding my audiological and medical histories, but I've never had a professional ask me what is going on with me as a person. After 10 years of trying to wrap my head around dealing with my hearing loss, and running the gamut from being loud and overcompensating for the loss, to being frustrated and withdrawing from conversation;to be asked where I was emotionally was a turning point. I felt like he cared about me as a whole person, and not just what was on my audiogram.

ALBERS: How have you dealt with some of the interpersonal effects of hearing loss, and what advice you would give people who are dealing with a newly diagnosed hearing loss?

JEBBIA: My first piece of advice would be to not be afraid to find out what's happening - ask questions and get answers. People who have just been diagnosed have to be an advocate for themselves. They must be proactive in communicating everything they're experiencing, no matter how insignificant it may seem, to their audiologist. It may feel like you're being pushy or needy, but you're really not, because your audiologist can't help you with issues that they don't know about. Based on the issues that I mentioned to him, my audiologist Charlie suggested that I join a support group so that I could talk to people and we can help one another through sharing experiences.

I also would want people to know that the road can be rough, especially in the beginning, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Just like in any crisis, you really find out who your friends are, and those are the people you lean on. The people who love you will go the journey with you and will help along the way. New hearing aid users also have to know that they have to take a couple of months to get used to even the best hearing aids. Your brain literally has to adjust, to learn what it's like to hear again, and with use, it gets a lot easier. When I started wearing hearing aids 10 years ago, I never imagined that instruments would be what they are today and that I would be living as fully as I am right now. In the end, I'm just a normal person who happens to need hearing aids, and I live my life as such.

ALBERS: I wanted to talk to you about the Siemens technology you're using, your Pure 700 hearing instruments, coupled with the Tek wireless enhancement that enables your hearing aids to be compatible with Bluetooth® wireless technology. How are you using this technology to reconnect to the things important to you?

JEBBIA: I have my Tek around my neck during most of the day, and it really enhances my experience with my Pure hearing aids. Tek allows compatibility with Bluetooth® wireless technology in my cell phone and that has been wonderful - it allows me to hear my cell phone through both hearing aids at the same time. As a spokesperson for Siemens, I've had phone meetings with people all across the world in the past couple of months, and it's a pleasure to be comfortable using the telephone again. I'm able to understand and respond appropriately, without constantly asking for repetition. Another feature of the Tek is that I can use my iPod when I work out, and just like the phone, I actually hear the music through my hearing aids.

There are many great features of my Pure hearing aids. I have multiple programs for different listening situations. I have one program for party noise that I use quite frequently. I think the best part of Pure is the ability to change the parameters of the programs to accommodate the fluctuation in hearing that comes with Meniere's disease. Charlie has made custom programs for me for when my hearing is less clear due to Meniere's. One program is for when my hearing is not so clear in my left ear, and another one is for when my hearing is clearer;essentially Pure has been specifically customized for my good days and my bad days. Another program I use a lot is for noisy social environments. It turns down your surround sound microphone, and focuses in on what is going on in front of you. It is especially helpful when you're in a room with high ceilings and a lot of echoing. I also love that with all the programs, the fine-tuning that my audiologist can do is endless.

This technology has helped me tremendously in social situations, whether it's a party or just watching television with friends. I have a function that allows me to hear both the television as well as people around me, and not just one or the other. I can hear and respond when we're talking and watching a movie or television show. Thanks to Tek, I have the sound from the television transmitted through my hearing aids, and I can turn the closed captioning off. The first time I did that, I think I tuned out pretty much everyone in the room and was just in awe and completely beside myself that I could enjoy television again without captioning. It's so helpful when I watch news and more dramatic programs without captions, because, as wonderful as captioning is, reading can take you out of the moment that is on the screen.

A lot of people assume that, because I have a hearing loss, I simply need more volume and I will hear fine. What people don't realize is that with Meniere's disease and many other types of hearing losses, volume is not the only issue - clarity is also an issue. Especially on my bad clarity days, turning up the volume can actually make things less clear. So, even on my bad days, thanks to my custom settings, I find my hearing aids to be extremely helpful.

SMAKA: You mentioned working out while wearing your hearing aids. Have you made any adjustments to your active life since wearing hearing aids?

JEBBIA: I'm very active - I always have been and wearing hearing aids hasn't changed that. I have to run my hour a day. Not only do I enjoy it, but exercise seems to help me with Meniere's and that's extra motivation to work out.

Speaking of being active, I'm also pursuing my Bachelor's of Science degree in Nursing. This is my second degree, and I'm hoping to transfer to a full-time nursing program. So you can see, having a hearing loss and wearing hearing aids hasn't slowed me down at all!

SMAKA: Shawnae, as audiologists Kristi and I appreciate you being so candid about your journey with hearing loss. Thank you.

ALBERS: Thank you, we hope your work with Siemens inspires others to seek treatment for their hearing loss.

JEBBIA: That's my hope as well. It has been a pleasure speaking with both of you.

The Bluetooth® word mark and logos are owned by the Bluetooth SIG, Inc., and any use of such marks by Siemens AG is under license.

HearUSA is a registered trademark of HearUSA, Inc.

More information about Pure hearing instruments, Tek wireless enhancement and other solutions from Siemens Hearing Instruments can be found at or on the Siemens Web Channel on AudiologyOnline.
Signia Xperience - July 2024

Shawnae Jebbia

Miss USA 1998

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