Hearing center pioneers hospice program for hearing impaired
Michael Combs and Jimmy Stewart both know firsthand how difficult it can be to watch a loved one pass away. Two of Combs' family have used hospice care during their final days; one family member and a friend of Stewart's also passed this year.
"We saw how the hospice nurses cared for our family and friend and it was touching," Combs, a hearing instrument specialist with Hearing Healthcare of Virginia, said. "How admirable that someone can give so much of their heart away to each patient."
The idea for a helping hearing-impaired hospice patients in Virginia began after Stewart, also one of the hearing instrument specialists for the hearing center, befriended the owner of a hearing device company in California. When he heard about the work he was doing with hospice patients, he came back to Virginia and told Combs "I've found a way we can give back."
Today, Hearing Healthcare of Virginia has fit more than three dozen pairs of donated, refurbished hearing aids free of charge on patients of Southern Care Hospice and Hospice of the Piedmont who do not have the resources to purchase these devices. Both Combs and Stewart donate their time to fit the hearing aids, traveling to the hospital or the patient's home in order to give them the gift of hearing.
"It's an emotional experience on many levels," Combs said. "It's happy and it's sad. We've gone to a lot of places, helped a lot of people, and developed a lot of relationships with people - even though most of those relationships are short term."
Combs said financial obstacles are the major reason these individuals do not have hearing aids. Unfortunately, their untreated hearing loss can make it difficult for their families and caregivers to communicate with them. When these obstacles are eliminated, the results can be life changing.
"When someone has no hope and they know they're passing away, it's heartwarming to be able to positively affect their quality of life, like we did for Mae."
Mae is one of the first patients to receive hearing aids after the hospice program began. After Combs fit her, she took his hands in hers and thanked him profusely. "She couldn't communicate with her hospice workers or her children, so it was very difficult for her to understand what they were doing or why she needed to take her medicine. After we fit her, she just lit up," he said. "Her family called later and were so ecstatic that grandma could communicate - and astounded we would do that without any fee. She only lived for three months after that but during that time, it sure made a difference to her."
While donating hearing aids to underserved patients in hospice programs might seem like a win-win situation for families and facilities, Combs said he's had difficulty breaking into some of the larger hospice programs in the area.
"It's tougher than what you might think," he said. "Trying to get through to their corporate folk is difficult - even with a program such as this. Fortunately, we have several privately owned hospice programs which have welcomed us."
Even so, the two hearing specialists are determined to grow the program and concentrate on free or low cost ways to advertise their service. Combs said a local television news station aired a feature story, which helped get the word out. Hearing Healthcare of Virginia has also held several hearing aid drives to encourage the community to donate hearing aids that are older or no longer being used.
"The program is still in its infancy but so far we've had a good response," Combs said. "We've had a few events where people could come and get free screenings and drop off used hearing aids but we still need a lot more. We built up a good stock to begin with, but we're starting to run low and this program is only going to get bigger. If people would donate, that would be great."
While the Hearing Healthcare of Virginia program benefits Virginia hospice patients, anyone can contribute. Community members can bring their old devices to any one of Hearing Healthcare of Virginia's six locations in Harrisonburg, Charlottesville, Fishersville, Culpeper, Lexington, and Covington. Those who live outside the state can send their hearing devices to the Charlottesville office, located at 302 Hickman Road, Suite 202, Charlottesville, VA 22911 or to the Harrisonburg office, located at 1951-F Evelyn Byrd Avenue, Harrisonburg, VA 22801.
Combs said all donors are sent a form to use for tax purposes, but the real payoff is the knowledge they've helped a dying family member hear their loved ones again before they pass. "We're talking about people with profound hearing loss that can't communicate without treatment," Combs said. "That's what drives Jimmy and me. We have a passion to help people - and it's not going to cost them a thing."