By William K. Alcorn
“Life-changing” is how Boardman audiologist Dr. Sheryl Figliano describes her international missions to give poor people the gift of hearing.
This month, Dr. Figliano, owner and president of Centers for Hearing Care in Boardman, is leading a team of six of her staff members and a Boardman Rotarian on her third-consecutive annual mission to the Commonwealth of Dominica, an island nation in the Caribbean.
“We have seen many lives changed for the better with the gift of hearing, but our work is not yet complete in Dominica,” Dr. Figliano said.
The team will be there a little over a week, where they will fit and distribute thousands of dollars worth of digital hearing aids and batteries, donated by her patients, Rotarians, and the community at large.
During that time, Dr. Figliano anticipates seeing upward of 400 patients, some of whom have received hearing aids in the past. In 2013, they saw 260 patients and “fitted” 115 hearing aids.
Fitting a hearing aid means more than ensuring that it physically fits. It also entails making sure the prescription is correct and teaching patients how to use the device.
For the children who receive hearing aids, the “life change” is obvious.
Perhaps for the first time they will hear birds chirp or wind blow in the trees, or the sound of their mother’s voice.
Not as obvious is how eye-opening an experience it is for Dr. Figliano and her staff and other volunteers.
“We come back with a whole different outlook on life. Here, we take our profession for granted. There, people stand in line hoping their child will be able to hear,” Dr. Figliano said.
As satisfying as are the successes, not every case has a happy ending. Sometimes, nothing can be done to help a child.
“When that happens, it is heartbreaking for the parents. Everybody is in tears,” she said.
The team sees children first, especially those who have hearing aids from previous missions.
Some are not wearing them because they no longer fit, are broken or don’t work because the batteries are dead.
Also, Dr. Figliano said, they target young children when they are at the age when speech and language are developing.
She said batteries are a problem even though patients are given a year’s supply, and the Dominica Rotary asks pharmacies to carry hearing-aid batteries.
Unfortunately, when the patients run out of batteries, they can’t afford to buy new ones, which cost $11 in Eastern Caribbean dollars. Some families live on $500 a year, she said.
Since 1999, when Dr. Figliano organized her first mission to Guatemala, she has returned with staff and associates to that nation and to remote areas in El Salvador, and in 2001, went to help rebuild an orphanage in Mexico just across the border from Yuma, Ariz.
Staff are not required to use vacation time for the missions, but they and other volunteers pay their own way, the doctor said.
On a previous mission to Dominica, Dr. Figliano met a young local woman employed at a hospital whom the Boardman Rotary Club brought here for two weeks of clinical training at Centers for Hearing Care. Now, when their Dominica patients have problems, they can go to her for treatment, she said.
Dr. Figliano organized her first international mission, but she now has strong support from the Boardman Rotary Club, of which she is a past president, as well as Rotary District 6650, Rotary International and the Dominica Rotary Club.
Dr. Figliano, a recipient of the 2006-07 Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber Athena Award, is a board-certified audiologist.
She earned a bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo; a master’s degree from Kent State University; and a doctor of audiology degree from Pennsylvania College of Optometry, School of Audiology. She is an American Academy of Audiology Fellow.
The Dominica Rotary helps smooth the way when the mission team arrives.
“They pick us up at the airport, give us a pass to get us through customs, and arrange for housing at the Ross University School of Medicine. They know we are there to help people,” she said.
As an added bonus, this year’s mission is an international project of Rotary District 6650, which includes 47 Rotary Clubs.
Debbie Esbenshade of Poland, governor of District 6650 and past president of the Youngstown Rotary Club, said one of her focuses was to make the audiologist’s mission a districtwide project.
“They helped many individuals, helped with other projects and did a lecture course and hands-on training at the medical university,” Esbenshade said.
Also, in 2001-02, when Esbenshade was president of Youngstown Rotary, she went to Mexico on a Rotary mission, as did Dr. Figliano, to work on an orphanage.
While there, she saw Dr. Figliano fit a child with a hearing aid.
“It was very impressive. It changed my perspective on Rotary International and on what we do locally and globally,” Esbenshade said.
While on the Mexico mission, Dr. Figliano gave hearing tests to the orphanage children. A man from a neighboring town heard about it and brought his son and asked if she could help the boy, who could not hear.
She examined the boy, fitted him with a hearing aid, and he was able to hear.
Recently, Dr. Figliano received a letter from the boy’s father telling her his son has finished high school and has entered a university to study engineering.
“This is largely due to your support with the hearing that you provided him. Thank you for your help,” the father wrote to Dr. Figliano.
“It’s an affirmation of our missions. It keeps us wanting to go back. That’s the reward,” she said.