Audiologist Jacqueline Olson’s No. 1 rule — no crying in her office — got broken a lot Thursday afternoon. That’s what happens when you change a life, the way she and her colleagues were changing the life of 26-year-old Samuel Ochenehi.
Ochenehi was in his first year of medical school seven years ago in his native Nigeria when, following hospitalization for typhoid fever, he went deaf. He finished medical school but learned to his dismay that his hearing loss was going to prevent him from being admitted to a residency program.
Then he met Doug Green, a Jacksonville neurotologist, who is founder and president of the Jacksonville Hearing and Balance Institute. Green, who also founded Hearing Help for Africa, regularly does medical missionary work at Evangel Hospital in Jos, Nigeria, where Ochenehi lives.
Green considered both Ochenehi and 19-year-old Emmanuel Odido, who lost his hearing at two as a result of meningitis, good candidates for cochlear implants. Both had sustained damage to the cilia, hairlike cells inside the ear that receive sound, which the cochlea translates into electrical signals. The implant takes over that function.
But because of sectarian violence in Nigeria and a lack of adequate medical facilities there, Green decided the best approach was to bring the two young men to Jacksonville.
“I kept having to postpone the trip because bombs kept going off, ” Green said. “It was easier to bring them here.”
In October, Ochenehi and Odido flew to Jacksonville and moved into an apartment Green rented for them. Green did surgery on Odido Oct. 16 and on Ochenehi on Oct. 23, implanting in each a device beneath the skin. A second piece fits over the ear, with a magnet that attaches to the implanted device linking them. Normally, the procedure costs about $50,000. But Green waived his surgical fees, and MED-EL Corp. donated the cochlear implants.
During the time they’ve spent in Jacksonville, Ochenehi and Odido have grown close to many of the people who work at the institute.
“They’re incredibly gracious people, ” Green said. “It’s really fun for me and for my office to be a part of this.”
“It’s been so awesome to see him blossom, ” Olson said of Ochenehi.
Thursday, Olson did tests to check how well Ochenehi was hearing and then made adjustments, creating four different hearing programs Ochenehi can switch to using a remote control. Ochenehi had been having trouble hearing male voices clearly but the adjustments seemed to solve that problem. Following the adjustments, Olson did a second round of tests.
“You’re in the normal range, ” she told Ochenehi,
“Wow, ” he responded.
Knowing what was coming next, Olson reminded Ochenehi about her “no crying” rule. Then she gave him the stethoscope Doug and Kelley Green had bought for him, a stethoscope that can be connected directly to the external earpiece.
As he put on the earpiece, Olson began crying. As he listened to the heartbeat of Allison Jeffries, the institute’s front office manager who has been den mother to Ochenehi and Odido during their visit, Jeffries started crying. As he listened to his own heartbeat, Ochenehi started crying, laying his head on his hands on Olson’s desk.
He looked up briefly, reproaching Olson: “You shouldn’t have made me cry.”
Then, placing his hands together as if in prayer, he closed his eyes and cried some more.
With damp tissues littering the desk — audiology extern Lindsay Oldham, assisting Olson, was also in tears — Jeffries lightened the mood by promising Ochenehi his favovite American meal, Bono’s babyback ribs and French fries.
“French fries, that’s my favorite, ” Ochenehi said with a grin.
Jeffries placed a call to Nigeria, where it was early evening. Ochenehi’s father answered and she handed Ochenehi the phone. For the first time in seven years, he heard his father’s voice.
“You’re hearing me, ” Ochenehi said. “I’m hearing you, too.”
That led to more tears and more damp tissues. Ochenehi told his father he’d be flying home soon, leaving Jacksonville on Thanksgiving Day so he can resume his medical education.
Odido will stay longer in Jacksonville while he works with a speech therapist. He lost his hearing as a young child and so is having difficulty with speech, having communicated all his life with sign language.
Leaving will be hard, Ochenehi said.
“It’s becoming difficult to say goodbye, ” he said. “They taught me what it means to care for people. I think this has been one of the best periods of my life. I don’t want to wake up from this dream.”
But he’s decided he has a mission to perform in Nigeria and he’s chosen a medical specialty he wants to pursue in order to fulfill that mission.
“I’ve decided to go for ENT [ears, nose and throat], ” he said. “This has been a life-changing experience for me. … I hope one day I’ll be able to put a smile on a child’s face like they did for me.”
Charlie Patton: (904) 359-4413