Rublin is an eleven year old Guatemalan boy whose teacher used to beat him for not paying attention. His classmates made fun of him and he was eventually expelled from school. If you asked Rublin, he would tell you he was trying to pay attention—but only his parents believed him. It turns out that Rublin wasn’t lying—the problem was that he couldn’t hear.
Rublin is one of the many patients seen by Jackie Phillips and Angela Flores (both audiologists with Siemens Hearing Instruments) during their recent one-week medical mission trip to Antigua, Guatemala. Phillips and Flores travelled to the third-world country as part of Faith in Practice, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of the poor in Guatemala through short-term medical trips. The two women have been making medical mission trips to the country for several years.
Despite its beauty, Guatemala is a nation of great poverty. A recent article in the Latin American Herald Tribune cited 52 percent of Guatemalans living in poverty. Of those, more than 15 percent are classified as destitute.
“The poor economic situation in Guatemala means that children are 10 times more likely to be born with hearing loss than children in the United States,” said Phillips. “Many of them must travel up to 12 hours just to get to an audiologist, only to wait another six to eight hours outside the clinic to finally see the audiologist.”
A 2007 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated that normal hearing students in primary grades achieve success at a rate double that of the hearing-impaired student population in mathematics, reading and writing. With half of Guatemala’s population under the age of 18, pediatric hearing loss is a major health concern.
“We see children suffering from hearing losses that would have been caught at birth and corrected as an infant here in the U.S.,” said Phillips. “In Guatemala, they don’t have hearing screenings in the hospitals at birth or in school. So, the issue can go undetected for many years.”
According to Phillips, untreated hearing loss among children can lead to serious health problems including poor language and cognitive development. In Guatemala, children who do not develop language properly are not allowed to attend school. With no education, these children are sentenced to a life of manual labor, often farming in fields. Such was the path of young Rublin—until Phillips and Flores showed up.
The two audiologists fit Rublin with a hearing aid and suddenly his world was awakened with the sounds of life. He laughed as he heard new sounds for the first time and his parents were filled with the hope that their son would have a better future. Once Rublin received treatment for his hearing loss, he was finally allowed to return to school.
Phillips and Flores saw nearly 60 patients, performed 125 procedures and fit 25 hearing aids during their week at Faith in Practice’s new audiology clinic in Guatemala. The days were long and tiring, but the gratitude of the Guatemalan people and the impact it made on their lives made it all worthwhile.
“Each day, we looked into these mothers’ eyes and saw the fear they had right before their child went into the testing room,” Phillips added. “Then we saw that fear change to joy when their child emerged and could hear for the first time. The experience was truly life changing.”
For Rublin, it certainly was.