“She said, ‘they want me to get the in-turnet,’” Dr. Diana Guercio recalled of the way her grandmother pronounced the word “internet.”
“She had never actually heard the word before, so she didn’t know how to say it,” Guercio explained. Her grandmother lost her hearing in her forties many years before the word was common, leaving her to communicate mostly via lip reading. “It was eye-opening. I kind of wonder how her life would have progressed if that didn’t happen. It definitely had an impact on me.”
Guercio is one of four audiologists on staff at Audiology by Accent in Gainesville and Lake City, Florida. Together, Guercio, Dr. Steven Petrakis, Dr. Ryan Baker and Dr. Ashley Espinosa work as a team to serve those in the community with varying degrees of hearing loss, whether mild or profound. The field of audiology consists of multiple areas of focus including aural rehabilitation, diagnostic hearing and balance assessments, amplification and tinnitus to name a few. It’s this subject’s breadth that attracted Guercio to audiology as an undergraduate student at the University of Florida. “It’s a profession where every day is different,” she said.
One of the most humbling and rewarding experiences of her career was her humanitarian work as part of Project Yucatan, a collaboration between UF Audiology, the UF College of Pharmacy and Asociación Yucateca Pro-Deficiente Auditivo A.Ca, or AYPRODA, a Mexico-based nonprofit organization. AYPRODA provides audiologic care to those in the Yucatan Peninsula, where services are limited. “Providing support to this population shaped how I care for my patients in such a positive way,” said Guercio.
As for Petrakis, audiology was not his initial focus when entering school. In fact, he studied pharmacy and even began working in a pharmacy before realizing that audiology is where his interests lie. “Learning how we hear and communicate really grabbed my attention, and I still find it very interesting,” Petrakis says.
Petrakis still remembers his first clinical experience in audiology. It was his first week at the University of Florida and a hurricane prompted university officials to cancel classes early in the week. This meant that he participated in an appointment with a hearing aid patient and his supervising audiologist before attending his first class. While slightly overwhelming, he knew from that appointment that he was going to enjoy interacting with patients and being an audiologist. For him, the successful treatment of patients is the best reward.
“Some people tell me how much better they can hear their grandchildren on the phone or over Skype when before they may have struggled. Or if they’re going to lunch with their friends, they can be a part of that conversation,” said Petrakis. “It’s stories like that — where we’re not only able to help them hear better — but positively affect their lives.”
Petrakis and his colleagues all agree on how hearing loss, especially untreated hearing loss, can negatively affect one’s quality of life.
For Baker, his career needed a new direction. Although audiology was not his initial career, sound has always played an integral part of his life as a music lover with a talent for piano and sound production. “I had a job at CNN for two years and I just didn’t feel good about it. My wife is in the helping profession, and I watched her come home from work satisfied. She didn’t necessarily love working in the emergency room, but she loved what she did. I needed a profession where I could make a positive impact on people’s lives,” Baker remembered. “Audiology was extremely interesting; because, as an audiologist we get to become a person’s personal sound engineer.”
After he graduated college and spent five years in the workforce, he went back to graduate school, dubbing himself “that old guy on campus.” The moment his bottom hit the chair of his first class, he knew he was in the right place. “Anatomy and physiology of the ear, I loved that. I loved the fundamentals of sound. I learned about how the brain processes sound and that fascinated me before I even saw my first patient.” The collaboration between patient and doctor is where his knowledge in music helps Baker pinpoint specific sounds and the role they play in how we hear the world.
Even though Baker traded in a soundboard for hearing aids, his profession still resonates with him on deeper level. “If my job could be to help people enjoy sound more and improve their lives through high quality sound and their access to it, then that was perfect [for me],” he said.
While technology is growing and thriving in the field of audiology, Accent focuses on areas that other hearing aid providers may not cover. Audiology by Accent’s main focus is on creating a comprehensive experience that is personalized for each individual. Their outreach extends to health fairs around Gainesville, in addition to aural rehabilitation classes.
The information can go beyond how to use a hearing aid, and includes practical tips about the best place to sit in a loud and crowded restaurant or the best way to use the phone. Through these four sessions held at the Village of Gainesville, the spouses, family, and even friends of the patient are taught effective communication strategies with those who have hearing loss.
“Spouses come up to me saying, ‘I never realized how hard it was. I didn’t realize that what I was doing made it much more difficult on them,’” Petrakis says. “‘So maybe it’s not just my husband not listening or it’s not just my wife talking from across the room’. It really opens their eyes to how much of a struggle it can be to understand speech for those with hearing loss.”
This sense of perspective is what allows the patient to thrive as well as embrace their hearing condition as something not to be embarrassed about.
Their outreach goes one step further, helping those in the community with hearing loss through the use of hearing loops or looping. Hearing aids assist patients in many environments, but in large rooms such as churches, theaters, and senior centers, hearing aids alone may not be enough. Looping, thus, gives access to sound through headphones or the patient’s own hearing aids to minimize the effect of distance and reverberation.
“For many, church is the most important event for them every week. If you go there and you can’t hear the sermon or the announcements, then that can make a person feel isolated and maybe even not want to go,” Baker says. Seeing this need, Accent has sponsored the installation of hearing loops in places such as Westside Baptist Church, the Senior Center and the Village of Gainesville. They also encourage their patients to advocate for the placement of loops in venues where they have trouble hearing.
Overall, the four stress that it’s about treating the person, not the hearing loss. It’s a quality that Accent takes pride in, and there the patients become family.
“The first lady I saw; I still see today. That was 13 years ago. I was nervous and I didn’t talk loud and she chewed me up,” Baker recalls. “She told me, ‘If you’re going to work with the hearing impaired, you need to learn how to speak up.’ I have never been quiet since.”
That’s truly what makes Accent unique: accessibility and a personalized treatment plan to meet all the needs and concerns of the patient. Accent’s Peace of Mind program ensures this accessibility. At Accent, the patient is fit with the most appropriate amplification and their follow up care is tailored on an individual basis.
“My hope for audiology is that the technology becomes more accessible. Hearing aid companies right now control prices. We try to separate the cost of those goods from the services we provide,” said Baker.Every experience is different, but having the knowledge to know what your options are makes a world of difference. As these audiologists can attest, treating hearing loss is a lifestyle change. Guercio puts simply, “Hearing is what really connects us to people.” It’s a sense that is often overlooked in a visually-driven society, but these audiologists bridge the gap in communication one person at a time.
“Some people tell me how much better they can hear their grandchildren on the phone or over Skype when before they may have struggled. Or if they’re going to lunch with their friends, they can be a part of that conversation.”
—DR. Steven Petrakis
Pictured starting from the left: Dr. Ashley Espinosa, Dr. Steven Petrakis, Dr. Ryan Baker, and Dr. Diana Guercio and their office manager.