Laurie Pullins: Dances with Sounds

17 07 2012

Laurie Pullins is the “cover girl” for the July/August 2012 issue of the Hearing Loss Magazine, which I design and produce bimonthly for the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA).

Here’s how Laurie came to be the latest HLAA member to grace the magazine’s cover. Back in February, right before my photography exhibit (Garden Muse: A Botanical Portfolio) opened at Green Spring Gardens, Laurie sent me a message that she would love to come see it in person (she’s been a big supporter and fan of my work for a few years now) and she was trying to coordinate a time when she could accompany her husband to the Washington, D.C. area on a business trip.

It so happens that I had been catching up with her blog, Dance with Sound, and had just suggested to Barbara Kelley that we entice Laurie to write a feature article for the magazine. Barbara is the editor of the magazine and HLAA’s deputy executive director (she is a Sneezeguard Heiress as well—check out her hospitality blog here). I pitched the idea to Laurie and said that if she could come up to see my show anytime in March or April, I could shoot the portraits of her for the feature then. We wanted to keep it a secret from even her closest friends so that she could surprise them; only her husband and children knew about it.

She was here about three days and in addition to getting some beautiful shots of her at a local park and in my studio, she was able to do the tourist thing, too. Michael and I took her to the Air Force Memorial and the Pentagon Memorial and we did quite a bit of drive-by sightseeing as well. Laurie is an avid photographer and a fellow Nikonian. We had such a great time during her visit and she was on pins and needles with excitement about keeping it a secret, especially to her friend Jennifer Thorpe, whom she sees every month when Jen comes to her city to work. Even Jen didn’t know about it until the issue was released!

Laurie is as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside and I consider her a very dear friend now. I appreciate her support of my work and am thrilled that she has a spotlight in the magazine with beautiful photos and her honest and inspiring writing. Much love for and appreciation of you, Laurie!

Below is Laurie’s feature in its entirety or you can download the pdf here: Laurie Pullins Feature

Dances with Sounds by Laurie D. Pullins

We enter this world with nothing and leave it with nothing. In between there is a “dance” called life. What we do with that dance defines who we are and how we embrace the world around us.

It’s 11:34 a.m. and I see the rain falling on the pavement outside. I’m enamored by the glitter of each raindrop as it splatters in the puddles between the uneven blocks of sidewalk; I’m compelled to go outside and play. As I dance in the puddles, weaving through the trees lining the sidewalk, I catch a glimpse of a small cat pouncing through the grass and I am again compelled to follow after it.

It is springtime in 1959 and as a small child collecting rain and grass all over my tiny, wet feet, I couldn’t be happier. Living in a small town in upstate New York, there is not much to hear on a daily basis, with only a grocery store and a post office as the main businesses of the town. I am like a sponge soaking up the new information being presented to me and I don’t even realize that I am missing the noise of my surroundings, until I take an unexpected path and darted across the street, barely being missed by an oncoming car. My mother, Betty, calls out to me and I simply do not respond. Here begins my “Dance with Sound…”

EARLY YEARS
I was the first child for my parents and was full of mischief and was often disobedient. By the time I was 18 months old they became uneasy about my lack of speech but did not connect it with hearing loss. Even though I was not verbalizing like other children my age, I was highly observant and always seemed to notice things first before anyone else did.

My severe-to-profound hearing loss was diagnosed at the age of two, shortly after the “running across the street after the cat” incident. My parents were told that I was deaf—not completely so, but to a degree that I would probably never learn to speak normally or understand spoken language without a great deal of therapy and training. Their dreams were shattered and they were deeply distressed and discouraged when they heard the words “bilateral,” “congenital,” “sensorineural.” It was suggested that I could be sent to an institution for the deaf where I would learn sign language as a means of communication. This choice usually meant that children sent there never learned to talk and communicate normally.

Shortly after meeting with an audiologist and psychologist at Children’s Hospital in Buffalo, they were encouraged because I still had some residual hearing and had been responding to training and voice stimuli. With extensive effort and training I could possibly be mainstreamed into the hearing world. From that moment on, they were focused on guiding me through the long and difficult process of learning to communicate verbally.

They were naively optimistic and unaware about the challenges that were ahead but they persevered. They knew they did not want me to be trapped in a world of silence. It was unconventional in the late 1950s and early 60s to teach children who were hard of hearing or deaf to speak.

I began therapy three times a week after my hearing loss diagnosis. I was fitted with my first hearing aid, which was a bulky body aid that I wore on my chest. After the birth of my brother, we moved from New York to Ohio. I continued with speech therapy three days a week at the Speech & Hearing Center in Derby Hall at Ohio State University until I started public school. There was no organized program for deaf children but I was fortunate to have enthusiastic therapists.

My father credits my mother, a teacher, for ensuring my speech and hearing training and spending hours on end with me. She enrolled in the John Tracy Correspondence course at home and got a special packet each month. This program gave many practical suggestions and encouragement and answered many questions. We would sit at the kitchen table every day going through the scrapbook that she made with various words and matching pictures cut out of magazines and catalogs.

At the age of five, I entered the deaf program in the Columbus public school system for kindergarten. My first teacher was Mrs. Card, who was the wife of the director of Deaf Education. I vividly remember sitting on her lap in front of a mirror with my hand on her throat, trying to imitate and form the sounds and words that she was making. I was reading at the third grade level by the time I entered first grade because I had to learn to read in order to learn to speak. I was mainstreamed in the public school systems from first grade on and had speech therapy through the eighth grade.

FAMILY LIFE
I had the privilege to grow up in a loving home. My family included my parents, Ed and Betty Royer, my two brothers, Dan and Doug (who was later diagnosed with a hearing loss), my sister, Kathy, two sets of grandparents, numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins who did everything within their power, no matter what the sacrifice was, to include me in the hearing world that was so familiar to them. They were great “therapy” for me! (The Royer family, from left, back: Kathy, Doug and Laurie; left, front: Danny, mother Betty and father Ed)

Still, the challenge of growing up as a child with a hearing loss in a hearing world was overwhelming and frustrating for me at times. I didn’t fit in the hearing world. I didn’t fit in the deaf world either because I did not know any sign language. I was fortunate to have good, understanding teachers. I even had a science teacher who shaved his mustache so I could read his lips!

As a teenager in the 60s and 70s, life was hard. Peer pressure reared its ugly head and I felt isolated. I went to a large high school in Centerville, Ohio, with more than 550 students in my graduating class. I had very few friends because I “talked funny” and couldn’t hear very well. I contemplated suicide several times but worked through my issues with the help of my support system. I couldn’t use the phone and even if I wanted to communicate with someone, I had to do it by mail or in person.

I just wanted someone to listen to me and validate my feelings. I wanted to have a sense of belonging. Thankfully, I had a wonderful family. However, not every teenager has that in today’s world. It was a struggle to have a conversation in the dark or hang out with a group of friends when multiple people were speaking. I knew firsthand the frustration of trying to understand what people were saying when I could not read or see their lips.

I also knew what it was like to misunderstand others and be misunderstood. It was difficult to meet new people because they just did not understand or did not want to take the time to talk to me. I was often labeled as a snob because people did not understand that I did not hear them when they called out to me. I had a small circle of friends, but still felt lonely because I was not always included in their activities. I had a few boyfriends but was never invited to a high school dance or prom. I immersed myself in books and music. I took swimming lessons and joined a synchronized swimming team, took piano lessons, wrote poetry, took gymnastics, learned baton twirling, and was involved in my youth group at church and Girl Scouts. I also had several regular babysitting jobs in the neighborhood. Deep down in my heart I wanted to get married and have a family, but I did not think it was possible with a hearing loss. A part of my world was taken away from me because it was a common misconception of our society at that time that not being able to hear well would hinder me from having a normal life. I became good at bluffing and hiding my hearing loss.

COLLEGE AND MARRIED LIFE
After graduating from high school in 1975, I was determined to start a new life with new friends and new goals. As I entered college that fall with a full scholarship, my plan was to leave the past behind and focus on getting my college degree in accounting so that I could have a career, travel and be independent. There were no accommodations for students with hearing loss, so I had to work twice as hard to “get the message.”

The freshman classes had at least 150 students and were in large auditoriums, making it difficult to take notes and read lips at the same time. But, the best thing that happened to me that first year was meeting my husband, Steve Pullins, who was a senior at the time.

My hearing loss was never an issue for him and he was patient and kind (and still is!) dealing with it. My mother knew he was serious about our relationship when he built me a bookcase for my books as a Christmas present!

Steve and I were engaged the following spring and married in November 1976. Steve served as an officer in the U.S. Navy right out of college. We moved around quite a bit the first few years of our marriage. This made it difficult for me to continue with my college education. Every time we moved, I transferred my credits and enrolled in classes. After a professor told me that I needed psychological help because I could not understand her (another misconception), I dropped the class and put my college education on hold with a promise to my parents that I would return someday to finish my degree. (Left: Steve and Laurie on their wedding day, November 13, 1976)

IN THE WORKPLACE
In 1997, I decided to get a part-time job to help with our finances. It was a scary time for me because I had not worked with the public in a long time and knew that I faced many challenges. Among other things, I needed a position that did not require using the phone. I found a job working as a teller in a credit union. I had to ask customers to face me so I could read their lips. The staff and my co-workers were supportive and helped me when they could. This renewed my desire to return to school in my 40s. (Laurie with her siblings in 2006, from left—Doug, Kathy and Dan)

When I enrolled at the University of Tennessee the Office of Disability Services contacted me. They offered to provide sign language interpreters for my classes. When I told them that I was oral and did not sign, they told me that they had transcribers available. Two transcribers came to every single one of my classes with two computers. I had a computer in front of me and they had the other one. The transcribers used a special program and typed almost word for word everything that was said in class. I could read everything on the screen in front of me (and could sit anywhere in the classroom) and participate. After class, the transcript was saved in a file and e-mailed to me for my notes. I had the best notes. As an added bonus, at my graduation everything was transcribed for me (and others) on the Jumbotron in the stadium! I was glad I waited to return to college when I did because more than 25 years ago there were few resources available for people with hearing loss.

My mother lost her battle with pancreatic cancer in 1992, but I kept my promise and graduated from college in 2003. I wore her picture on my gown as I walked across the podium. Mom was always there for me. And she still is, in a way. I truly believe she is my guardian angel, watching over all of us.

A RICH FAMILY LIFE
Steve and I have been blessed with four beautiful children—Jason, Chris, Brad, and Marissa. My mother always commented that our children were good “therapy” for me because my days were filled with teaching them to talk and conversing with them. They learned to take their pacifiers out of their mouths so that I could read their lips. Our children learned to be my “ears” for me at a very young age. They were trained how to talk on the phone and had to learn telephone etiquette to relay messages for me. They learned some valuable coping skills since I did not always hear everything that was going on. (Left, Christmas 2011: (back) Steve, son Jason and grandson Jackson, sons Brad and Chris, daughter Marissa’s boyfriend Howy Moulton; (front) Laurie, daughter-in-laws Jessica and Caitlyn (holding Madelyn), daughter Marissa Pullins holding Wyatt Moulton. Photo © Sabrina Lafon Photography)

They are our greatest accomplishments and successful young adults who are sensitive to others who are “differently-abled.” Many other highlights of our marriage included moving nine times in twelve years with the Navy and living in six different states, career changes and raising our four children.

PAYING IT FORWARD
I believe we were fashioned for fellowship and formed for friendships. My definition of friendship can often be defined more lasting than a marriage and closer than a brother or sister. The most unlikely people can end up as friends and I feel that often has to do with where we are in life.

I’ve had some wonderful friendships over the years but since I came to terms with my hearing loss and started my cochlear implant journey, some of my closest friends are also on a hearing journey as well.

I joined HLAA in 2005 when I started losing what little bit of hearing I had and soon discovered that HLAA was a lifeline for others like I am who are affected by hearing loss. I would not be where I am in my life if it wasn’t for their encouragement, advocacy, information, and support. Not everyone has that type of support and that is where HLAA comes in at the national and local level. I have used the Internet as an opportunity to connect, meet and even mentor to others, including parents of deaf children. I am passionate about HLAA and it is no accident that I am in a position to “pay it forward” and help others with the challenges that they face every day. (Above: HLA of Knoxville Christmas party; Laurie is in the front row, far right.)

Someone asked me once that if I could name the one person who has made a difference in my life, who would it be and why. Although I’ve been blessed with many friends and supportive people, it would be my mother. She was a great advocate for me and my younger brother, Doug, and did everything in her power to help us be the successful people we are today. Because of her love and dedication, I can “pay it forward” and advocate for others with hearing loss. Mom is still very much a part of my life today.

WHY I DANCE
When I started my cochlear implant journey in 2005, I created a blog and named it “Laurie’s Dance with Sound.” Little did I know that I would embrace the world of dance in a brand new way six years later.

In January of 2011, Steve and I walked into the Let’s Dance Ballroom Dance Studio in our small town of Maryville, Tennessee, to explore ballroom dancing. We found a new passion that we could enjoy together as a couple in our new lives as empty nesters. Steve and I have been dancing the “dance of life,” so to speak, for the last 36 years and were looking forward to dancing together in a new and different way. After a few weeks of lessons, something stirred inside of me and I knew then that I needed more than just a few sessions a week. In addition to dancing with my husband, I started private lessons with our dance instructor to explore the world of ballroom dancing on a new and different level.

During one of my private dance lessons, Chris Rose, my dance instructor, asked me the question, “Why do you want to dance?” The question caught me off guard. I have pondered it ever since, searching for some better answers. As long as I can remember, music has always been a part of my life. Even though I could not hear well, it filled my heart with emotion and needed no words.

Victor Hugo describes it perfectly when he says, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.” When I wore my hearing aids, music was just “pretty noise.” I would play it as loud as I could so I could feel the beat and rhythm through the vibrations and sounds. Throughout the years, I have expressed music through many different forms, whether it was by playing the piano, ringing hand bells in church, dancing liturgically, signing to music, and even swimming on a synchronized swim team.

In August 2005, I underwent surgery for my first cochlear implant, and surgery for another cochlear implant followed in January 2007. These two surgeries changed my hearing and life dramatically. For the first time in my life, I was hearing sounds that I had never heard before, sounds others take for granted. I spent a year in auditory-verbal therapy relearning how to hear with my new “ears.” Now that I can hear almost perfectly with my cochlear implants—the sounds of music changed for me and became multi-dimensional with the variations of the different instruments and voices.

When I dance, I can leave the stressors of daily life outside the dance room door. I lose myself in the music and the dance. I cannot go more than a few days without music. And now I cannot go more than a few days without dance. I cannot find all the words to explain how I feel, but I do know that ballroom dancing has changed something deep inside me, and it is something that cannot be hidden or controlled.

When I dance, I feel a shift in my spirit and lose myself in the rhythm of the music on the dance floor. When I wear my dance “hat,” I only know that I am listening and responding to the music playing in my ear, and it makes me feel whole. Learning to ballroom dance has ignited a fervent passion and desire that I cannot deny. For when I dance, it is just the music and me.

Dancing lets me live a dream that I have always had. Ballroom dancing has allowed me to let my hair down and be free. It helps me release the tension and stress I encounter in my daily dance of life, keeping my body and brain active, and helping me with my mental health. I have Meniere’s disease, which is a disorder of the inner ear that affects hearing and balance, characterized by episodes of vertigo, dizziness, and occasional “drop attacks.” I am learning how to balance and control my body and have had fewer episodes since I started dancing! I am gaining more confidence and coordination in my body, which is resulting in a better posture and a more positive outlook on life.

My dance instructor and his colleagues at the dance studio know that they have given me a new lease on life. Their faith, belief and trust in me that I can dance in spite of my challenges speak volumes. Chris is so patient with me, yet firm with constructive criticism. Since I’ve started dancing, I’ve performed four different routines with my husband, Steve, or with Chris and have entered and placed in several local ballroom dance competitions. I am nervous right up to the time of each performance but as soon as the music starts, the butterflies in my stomach go away and I just dance.

What a wonderful feeling it is to show my joy, my emotions, and deep gratitude that I am able to do what I love as I move across the floor with my dance partner. I would not have done this without the miracle of sound through my cochlear implants, and especially without the support of my parents, family and friends.

My mother always encouraged me to use the gifts that I was given and NEVER gave up on me. She said in 1974, “From our standpoint it is worth it all. I feel that even with all the modern help now available, too many parents set their sights too low and give up too easily. As a result, many deaf children are not realizing their full potential.”

A CHANGED LIFE
It doesn’t take much for the tears to well up in my eyes and start flowing down my cheeks when I hear the joyous sounds of the birds, the wind in the trees, music, voices of my family, especially my grandchildren, to be able to hear and understand people around me without having to read lips, to be able to use the phone, and everything else with two “ears.”

I am a changed life. Changed because of the technology that allows me to dream again, to go back to college, speak, dance, mentor, and hear the world all around me. So many of us are afraid of the unknown and are afraid to leave our comfort zone to try new things. And we run away from it when the very thing we should do is to embrace the challenges before us. And when we do accept the gifts and talents that we are blessed with, we will come out on the other side, surprised and better than we were before.

So, my friends, dance the dance of life that you are given. You will never ever be the same again.

Laurie Pullins has been the president of the HLA Knoxville Chapter for five years. The Chapter recently participated in the Chattanooga Walk4Hearing and was the highest fundraising team. She can be reached at ldpullins@gmail.com. Her blog is http://lauriescidance.blogspot.com.

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3 responses

18 07 2012
Mike Powell

What an inspirational story. I am still pondering that last challenge, “Dance the dance of life that you are given,” wondering if fear of the unknown is holding me back. Thanks for sharing this beautiful story of a wonderful life.

23 07 2012
David Proffitt, President and CEO, Alcoa Tenn Federal Credit Union

Laurie was a staff member at our financial institution for several years. I could tell you a lot about how she worked as a teller, IT assistant and then accountant with a hearing loss, but that is not her most important contribution. The life and faith she exhibited to young women and men around her was what caught my attention. She was a mentor, encourager and example for the many young people who needed her guiding hand. I am always humbled by her. Laurie, you have only just begun.

David Proffitt
PResidnet and CEO
Alcoa Tenn Federal Credit Unnion

26 07 2012
mary hooker

Hello Laurie. You are amazing! Special thanks for sharing this message.
You have inspired so many! I am so glad you lived in WI and were a part of our B.S. group and church. You have grown into such a beautiful young lady! May God bless you and the many people you touch with the gift of faith and hope and love! Mary Hooker

4 06 2013
Bud Light

It was a pleasure meeting you last week. Your story of how you have coped with hearing loss through the support of your family and friends is truly inspiring. You are to be commended on your dedication to helping others with hearing loss, and perhaps inspiring others to dance the dance of life.
Bud

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