Karen Putz has dealt with fluctuating hearing loss her entire life. It runs in her family: her mom is deaf, her grandmother was deaf, her siblings are all deaf or hearing impaired. Still, when she took a tumble at the age of 19 while barefoot water skiing, she wasn’t prepared for the audial blackout that followed. Her hearing had always returned, so she assumed it would again.
Karen’s hearing did not return, and she wouldn’t understand why until years later, when she enlisted the help of the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders to perform genetic testing on her and her family. What they found was a mutation in the mitochondrial gene: a gene that is passed on through the mother. At the time, only two other families in the world had been diagnosed with the same mutation.
Even given her family history, Karen’s sudden deafness came as a shock. She remembers crying right before leaving for her first year at Northern Illinois University, and the anger she felt at realizing they had placed her in a dorm with other hearing impaired students.
“I was really upset with this because I spent the majority of my life trying to blend in,” she said. “But my mom said, go into this with an open mind.”
Months later, she was still crying every night. She couldn’t understand her professors, she couldn’t understand her dorm mates signing in ASL. Then one day, she woke up too tired to fight it. Pulling her hair into a ponytail, her hearing aids exposed, she boarded the bus.
“I thought they were looking at me, but probably in reality they weren’t,” Karen said. “I was just uncomfortable with myself and with hearing aids. It wasn’t an easy transition. It was something that happened gradually.”
Karen initially wanted to be a nurse when she entered college, but her career counselor discouraged her. What if she couldn’t understand what the patient or the doctor was saying? What if she gave a patient the wrong medicine because she misunderstood? Karen, who was still adjusting to her life as a deaf person, was scared into changing her major. She now holds a master’s degree in rehab counseling with a focus on the deaf and hearing impaired. But after she graduated, of course, she met all sorts of deaf nurses and doctors.
“It would have helped with the grief process to have been exposed to deaf and hard of hearing role models,” Karen said, which is why she is so passionate about deaf and hearing impaired children meeting successful adults with hearing loss.
Karen spends her time today advocating for the hearing loss community as a motivational speaker, writer and life coach. She’s also still barefoot water skiing, which she took up again four years ago and now competes in regularly. Her freelance writing work includes clients like Ricky Martin’s parenting blog and Walgreens’ website. She is also working on several more books to add to her bibliography and runs her own greeting card business.
With all the things she does, it’s a wonder she has any time left for her husband and three children, ages 16-21, all of whom are deaf or hearing impaired. Karen and her husband have made a point to raise their children to transcend their limitations instead of shy away from them, because Karen understands now how the challenges she faced made her into the person she is today.
“The biggest lesson is reflected in one of my favorite quotes from What A Girl Wants: ‘Why are you trying so hard to fit in when you were born to stand out?’” she said. “The particular paths that we’re going on we’re on for a reason. We were not born to hide who we are but to show the world our differences. We have something to share with the world and now, when I look back I think, wow, that was a real blessing. You couldn’t have told me that back then. I was miserable. But I just grew into the person I was supposed to be.”