The World Just Opened Up
If you see Brian McBride, 15, and his twin sister, Bria, walking down the halls of Pikesville High School, you'd be hard pressed to notice what sets them apart from the rest of the students. Clad in jeans and t-shirts, they look and sound like typical teenagers. She's interested in volleyball and biology, and he's a budding football player who excels in music.
But take a closer look at the slim, plastic tubes partially encircling their ears, the tiny devices that resemble headsets. They're hearing aids. And they've been integral parts of the McBrides since they were 4 years old. Brian - who is older than his sister by one minute - was born with 75 percent hearing loss, and Bria, with about 40 percent.
Their mother, Gretchen McBride, first suspected the hearing loss when the twins were 3. "I'd be in my room, and their room was down the hall," she said. "The TV was always very loud. And when their backs were to me, they couldn't hear me. Whereas when they were looking at me, they seemed to hear, because they were reading my lips."
She discussed these things with the nurse practitioner during a checkup for the twins. The nurse dismissed McBride's concerns and said the children could indeed hear, but simply weren't paying attention. "It took about a year for the doctor to get serious about this," McBride recalled. "At that time, we didn't know Bria had a problem, so we focused on Brian. I kept telling the doctor Brian needed to have his hearing tested."
Luckily, one of the people she said this to was a friend who worked for The Hearing and Speech Agency (HASA). Eventually the children went to an audiologist for the tests. Brian went into the sound booth first, and then Bria followed. The results confirmed McBride's suspicions that Brian had hearing loss. She was shocked to learn that Bria did too.
"My heart was broken," she said. "I thought, 'What did I do wrong during my pregnancy?' "
Probably nothing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one baby out of a thousand born in the United States is either deaf or hard of hearing. Within that group, between 50 and 60 percent of hearing loss can be attributed to genetics, 25 percent to maternal infections during pregnancy, and the remaining 25 percent to unknown causes. Premature babies may also be more susceptible, and the McBrides were five weeks early.
Once the diagnosis was in hand, Gretchen McBride turned to HASA to assist her in finding resources to help with the costs of hearing aids because her health insurer - like so many others - did not cover the devices. HASA's staff identified groups that provided grants and then helped her fill out the applications. She wound up getting one for $4,500, which enabled both children to get hearing aids.
"The world just opened up," Brian said, recalling the first days with his hearing aid. "I could finally hear what people were saying. Before I heard sounds and a lot of mumbles."
Bria agreed. "Sometimes before I couldn't hear anything," she added. "After we got them and started kindergarten, the other kids were like 'Wow, can we get one?'"
There was an adjustment period, of course. Brian said his first one, made of hard plastic, made his ears sore. And both twins found that the aids would stop working after they'd played sports and were sweating. But after 11 years with them, the twins say they often forget that they're wearing them. "Some nights I forget to take it out until my head hits the pillow." Bria said.
Luckily, the newer ones got increasingly smaller as the technology improved. Every two years, Bria and Brian get new aids; in Maryland, medical assistance and most insurers are required to cover the cost of hearing aids until the age of 21.
After that, the McBrides will have to find other ways to pick up the costs. But, Brian isn't worried about that right now. The rising sophomore intends to go to the Massachusetts Institute for Technology; "I'll be set for life," he said emphatically.
His mother laughed. Then after reflecting on the struggles she had to help him hear and gain that confidence, she said "When it comes to your children, never let anyone tell you no. A mother knows her children, and I knew they needed help."