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Jonesborough woman working to help people become aware of, get access to cochlear implants

Rex Barber • Feb 20, 2012 at 9:41 AM

“I can hear,” Louise Skalko said with a laugh as she put her cochlear implant in place soon after answering her door.

She immediately began to explain how the device worked; how it bypasses damaged hearing parts and directly stimulates the hearing nerve. It recreates sounds rather than amplifying them as a hearing aid does.

Now in her 70s, Skalko got the implant surgically installed in 2001. She knew she had hearing loss before that, but it took years to figure out.

“I probably had some kind of hearing loss since I was a child, only I didn’t know it,” Skalko said. “Apparently, I was reading lips, but I didn’t know it. I just thought I was stupid.”

Of course, she was not stupid, it just never occurred to anyone that she had a problem.

“I could hear in quiet environments and one-on-one, but I was reading lips,” she said. “I can read music. I can play anything, but I can’t hear what I’m playing.”

The sounds she does hear are mechanical, but as a musician, she can keep up with the beat and faithfully recreate musical pieces.

Nowadays, Skalko said, people are more attuned to those with hearing loss. She said 10 percent of Americans have some sort of hearing loss. Newborns are all tested for hearing loss.

Skalko retired to Jonesborough, though she has lived all over the country, including New Orleans, and Augusta, Ga. She was born in New York City and lived in Brooklyn as a child.

Her passion now is advocating for people with hearing loss and helping ensure the success of the new East Tennessee State University Cochlear Implant Center.

When she moved back to Johnson City after retirement in 2006, she realized there was only one audiologist in the area who did mapping for cochlear implants. If she wanted to have follow-up treatments for her device, she would have to return to Augusta, where it was installed, or go to Nashville. Other people who may have cochlear implants in Northeast Tennessee would be in the same position.

“I decided one of the things I would like to do in retirement is establish a cochlear implant facility in the Tri-Cities area,” she said.

So, she began providing seed money for the ETSU clinic. The clinic recently opened, and Skalko was pleased it has seen a few patients and has booked several more for the near future.

The clinic can not surgically install cochlear implants but it can evaluate patients for the devices and also provide follow-up treatment.

Skalko hopes that one day surgeons in this area can install the implants.

Before she retired, Skalko was an educator.

She put herself through college by teaching. Skalko got her bachelor’s degree at St. Johns University in New York. She worked on a master’s degree in biology in Gainesville but did not finish that one.

When she moved to Johnson City, she went to East Tennessee State University and got a master’s degree in education.

She also started a scholarship for students in the College of Education.

It took a while to finish the master’s in education, what with being a working adult and all, but she did get it. Better and better jobs followed and eventually she came to work at an engineering and construction company as the senior corporate trainer for construction.

She helped instruct 6,000 people on continuing education. Five to six percent of those people were illiterate, she said. Regardless, they had to pass a written test to keep their jobs.

After she discovered some workers could not read, Skalko was tasked with helping them pass the tests. She helped 300 workers retain their jobs by reading the tests allowed.

Eventually, she established an on-site literacy program that helped save many people’s jobs and provided them a new skill.

She wondered if that would have been implemented had she not been there.

“I know with my disability I am more attuned to other people’s differences, and I can’t say sympathetic, just more understanding,” Skalko said.

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