Carmen Iraida Franceschi is our cover feature for the May/June 2016 issue of Hearing Loss Magazine! I design and photograph for this bimonthly publication of the Hearing Loss Association of American (HLAA).
Iraida sent me a friend request on Facebook awhile back without knowing that a) I was the designer and photographer for the magazine, b) I also have hearing loss, and c) that she lives just a few miles from me! I imagine the friend request came because of my connection to several of her other hearing-loss-related friends on Facebook. I had no idea who she was or where she lived. After our big “Snowmageddon,” I saw a photo she posted on FB of her townhouse front steps covered in massive amounts of snow. I thought, hmm…could she actually be in my neighborhood? I messaged her and learned she was in another townhouse subdivision just a few miles from me! That’s when I asked her if she would be interested in being interviewed and photographed for the magazine.
© Cindy Dyer. All rights reserved.
Carmen “Iraida” Franceschi: The Power of Perseverance
Interview by Cindy Dyer
Carmen “Iraida” Franceschi was born in Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico, the neighbor city of Ponce, located at the southern end of the island. She came to Virginia when she was 18 to live with an aunt and attend college at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Her hearing loss was diagnosed when she was in grade school and progressively worsened. When hearing aids were no longer effective, she discovered she was a candidate for cochlear implants. I sat down with Iraida and her mother, Coca, to talk about her hearing loss journey. It was a family affair as Iraida’s husband Michael and their two daughters shared their experiences, too.
Hearing Loss Magazine (HLM): When was your hearing loss first discovered?
Iraida: I believe I was 7 years old. My first-grade teacher noticed that I was not really paying attention when she was calling me. My family was also thinking maybe there was something wrong with me, but they had doubts because I was doing so well. I was taken to the audiologist and they diagnosed my hearing loss. It was mild at first, but soon became progressive.
Coca: The doctor thought that the damage might have been caused by an antibiotic that she was given when she was a baby. He thought that the progression would end when she was in her 20s—but by that time she had lost a lot of her hearing.
HLM: Do you think you were compensating by reading lips?
Iraida: When I was a little girl I cannot recall if I was reading lips.
Coca: She was reading lips! She was always so attentive when she was speaking with somebody. She would always look directly at them. She began speaking early and was within the normal range as she grew older.
When she was about 2 or 3 years old, she communicated without problems with us, other kids, and adults. Then there were some changes when she was in kindergarten, but we attributed them to being distracted. As she grew older we realized that her hearing was not as good as it should be, especially when she sang a song (in Spanish)—it sounded like gibberish, yet she was truly enjoying the song. We were puzzled as to why she would sing the song in such a foreign way!
HLM: Do you still read lips even with cochlear implants?
Iraida: Yes, I always do. It’s such a habit for me.
HLM: What was it like wearing hearing aids?
Iraida: I did not like them. I wore them to school, but when I got home I would take them off. When I was with my family, I didn’t think it was that bad, but maybe they thought otherwise. The hearing aids were so noisy. I could hear all the background noise. Everything was so loud!
Coca: She was able to hear. I was able to speak to her if I spoke slowly. I didn’t have to speak louder because her problem area was with high-pitched tones.
HLM: Did your hearing loss affect your schoolwork?
Iraida: That’s a good question. When I was a little girl I was very fun-loving and did not take schoolwork seriously!
HLM: What did you study in college?
Iraida: At the time, I was trying to get into accounting, but that was a complete shock for me because English became harder for me to understand.
HLM: Was that because the hearing loss was progressing?
Iraida: Yes, but English was just harder. The college environment was much more advanced to me and I just could not keep up. I always wanted to understand hearing people. I was sad about that but I did not let it stop me from interaction.
Coca: When she moved to the United States she did not speak English at all. She moved here in mid-summer and in the fall she entered Mary Washington College. Her hearing was bad and was getting progressively worse. She was wearing hearing aids but they did not help. She asked the teacher to record all the lessons so that when I came home I could transcribe for her, but he would not allow it.
Iraida: For a while I had great hearing aids, but then I wanted to give up because the hearing loss was progressive and they weren’t working. Cheap ones, expensive ones—none of them were helping at this point in time.
HLM (to Coca): How did she get into college without being able to speak English?
Coca: She was able to understand and write English. It was just a problem when she got into a conversation. It was hard for her to keep up with the teacher who was speaking far away from her without looking at her. She was not used to the language at the time, so it was not easy. It was not just reading or writing in English—it was listening to someone speak English. That’s what made it difficult.
HLM: At what point did you know you were a candidate for cochlear implants?
Iraida: I was 28 or 29. I was trying to find information online but there didn’t seem to be much available.
Coca: I remember once we were trying to check on some kind of device that you could wear just to watch TV. It was years ago and it was too cumbersome—there was a cable running from your head and you had to carry something in your pocket. We both said, ‘Forget it! When they invent something better, we will reconsider.’
HLM: At this point you began working. Where did you work?
Iraida: I got a job at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia. I’m a program assistant. It’s mostly data input, coordinating programs, and running the panel. It is quite a workload. I have worked there for more than 20 years.
In the beginning I wore my hearing aids because I needed to be able to hear my supervisor and co-workers. Requesting closed captioning for upcoming meetings had to be done well in advance. Although I wore my hearing aids, I didn’t like the constant feedback noise. My co-workers could hear the squeal of the feedback and they would let me know. It seems the hearing aids were always squealing. There was always a problem with the earmold. They would shrink over time and I would have to go back and get a new mold cast.
HLM: Tell me about your experience with cochlear implants.
Iraida: As my hearing loss progressed, information was hard to find. Then we got an invitation to a seminar on cochlear implants. I almost didn’t go. I was not that curious yet, and we were still researching options. I also didn’t know anyone who had cochlear implants. Now I know lots of people who do and we have a closed group on Facebook that is all about cochlear implants. Now I have thousands of friends that I can relate to!
Coca: It was always so disappointing when we tried to get information. There were no people to contact. How were we going to be able to pay for it? How were we even going to find out the cost? I had no idea whether insurance would cover anything, and not being able to find the answers to your questions was horrible. We tried calling our health plan providers and doctor’s offices, and found no data. No one could answer our questions.
It was like there was a wall up and there was nothing available, so we decided to forget about it.
Iraida: I decided to go to the seminar at the last minute and drove all the way to Maryland where it was being held. When I got there I found there was a large resource of information. There were brochures and doctors and health insurance information. They guided me to a room with two large-screen TVs with closed captioning. Everybody was asking questions and they were answering them clearly and slowly. When the doctors took the stage to answer questions, I paid close attention because I planned to make an appointment with one of them. One of them got my attention. He was a doctor at George Washington University.
I’m bilateral now. I had the first implant for one year before getting one in the other ear. I just wanted to try it. In the beginning it was very difficult. It wasn’t what I expected. I was expecting sounds to be clearer. In the beginning sounds were more clutter and static, and at first voices sounded squeaky, like Donald Duck. It was horrible. When my implant was first activated, I was in shock. I told myself, ‘I made a mistake,’ but they assured me it would fade out and fade away. My brain would have to grow accustomed to it.
After six months I noticed that I could put the implant on, and if the room was quiet then it would be really quiet, but I could also hear when somebody was walking. I could hear the sound of footsteps from outside, or when somebody was opening the door, or locking the car. When I used the remote starter I could hear when my car’s engine was running, while I was in the house.
When I started to hear these sounds, so clear and so crisp and so wonderful, I thought, ‘I really want to have the other ear done!’ I wore a hearing aid on the other side but I felt that it was not working. The cochlear implant was so powerful that I had to keep checking the hearing aid and asking myself, ‘Is this on? Is the battery good?’ It was like the hearing aid wasn’t working at all, but it was.
I told my family that I wanted to proceed with a second cochlear implant and they suggested I wait. I got the second implant on January 23, 2013. The nurse pointed out that it was one year to the date from the first implant.
I believe that my second implant was easier because I knew the process of what was going to happen. Not every implantation is easy. Everyone’s experience is not the same. Other people feel differently about their second cochlear implant. They fit comfortably and there is no feedback. I hear more and I feel more confident.
HLM: How has having cochlear implants helped you at work?
Iraida: Now that I am bilateral, I can participate in meetings even when there isn’t closed captioning available. My supervisor and co-workers have noticed that I am more productive now than I was in the past. My supervisor said, “I noticed that you appeared to be struggling with understanding what the staff was saying. Lately, I noticed that from a distance you can hear what I am saying to you. And you don’t ask me to repeat. Big improvement!”
I can turn on the telecoil, (or t-coil), which I can use in a meeting room with a hearing loop, but not many meeting rooms come with a loop. I love it because the sound streams straight to my ears and it is so easy to use.
I would like to look into an upgrade for my cochlear implants. I would like to know if it is possible and how much my insurance would cover.
HLM (to Coca): Did you notice a difference communication-wise after Iraida had the implant?
Coca: Our dynamic has completely changed. Before, when we had a conversation and we were talking to other people, we would be looking at each other so that I could repeat what the other person said. I would speak slowly and in a tone of voice that she could understand, and then I would get lost in the conversation because I was not listening, I was talking.
She would miss a lot and we would have to repeat frequently. Or, we would say the same thing using different words and slowly, but we wouldn’t be able to retell every detail, and we had to make sure she was looking at us. Now, that’s all a thing of the past!
Iraida: They were speaking to me but sometimes I was not listening to what they were saying because I was watching my mother and not listening to the speaker.
Coca: Sometimes Michael, Iraida’s husband, would do some sign language. He could do spelling and a few words.
Iraida: Michael is not proficient in sign language and I only know a few words myself. I have taken sign language classes but only when I was an adult and thinking about getting a cochlear implant. I also have a co-worker who is deaf. He wears no hearing aids and uses sign language. It really is another language. It is a challenge to learn sign language. Some people don’t even want to try.
Coca: One difference in the dynamic with her children is that they used to lie to their father and say, “I spoke with Mommy but she didn’t hear anything.” They can’t do that now. They can’t get away with as much as they used to!
HLM: How hard was it to communicate with your husband?
Iraida: It was hard. Sometimes he was writing to me and sometimes he used sign language to spell out words. We could easily have miscommunication and misunderstandings. Sometimes our plans got broken because I would meet him somewhere at 5 p.m. and he would tell me, ‘No, we were supposed to meet somewhere else or at some other time.’ Sometimes I got details wrong.
I love to make fun of myself when I miss details like mispronouncing ‘chicken’ with an ‘sh.’ My children will mispronounce the word the way I say it just to tease me, and I laugh because I love it. It really doesn’t bother me at all. There are some other words, like ‘chocolate.’ I cannot pronounce ‘chocolate,’ and they say, ‘shock-o-late.’ Spanish words are easier to say than English words. English words have so many grouped consonants like ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ that are hard for me to pronounce. I have trouble pronouncing ‘s’ and ‘z.’
HLM: When you take your implants off, can you hear at all?
Iraida: No. I take them off at night when I go to sleep and when my husband comes home, I am unaware. He works the night shift and does not wake me. When my children were younger, they could be on a phone call late at night and I would not hear it. In fact, my husband was the one who got up at night for them when they were infants. I did not hear them cry. Taking them off allows me to sleep peacefully.
HLM: You had hearing loss at a young age. Did you notice a difference between listening to music with hearing aids versus cochlear implants?
Iraida: With cochlear implants, I had the beginning phase with trouble hearing music, but I do enjoy listening to music, so I’m happy I was able to adjust to it. Music sounds wonderful when I crank the volume up. I love to listen to music when I drive.
HLM: How is your hearing in noisy social situations?
Iraida: With hearing aids this did not bother me because I could hardly hear anything. I couldn’t understand anyone—not even my family, even if I read their lips. I would just sit there, eating and smiling.
With cochlear implants I hear more background noise but I am more restful. My family might still speak louder, thinking that I cannot hear them, but I can talk to them and participate with the group. I might miss a few things, but this is so much better than before. I can enjoy the conversations. I can follow along and interject comments into conversations. Some of my friends say that the noise in restaurants bothers them. They have a hearing loss and it bothers them, but it doesn’t bother me.
HLM: Tell me about your family.
Iraida: Sienna is 16. She loves softball, and is pretty good at it. She is pretty quick at everything. She studies quickly and does homework and housework quickly‚ so I have to check on her because she might miss something!
Delayna is 14, and the complete opposite of Sienna. She is slow and likes to take her time. She does not like to be rushed. She’s not as social as Sienna, but she has her friends.
My husband, Michael, is a forensic photographer with the FBI. He photographs evidence for use in court presentations. He used to be in Washington, D.C., but now works in Quantico [Virginia]. He recently received a medal for 30 years of service.
For some odd reason people think my husband is Hispanic, like I am, but he’s not. He’s from Pennsylvania, and does not know any Spanish. He listened to cassettes on Spanish so he could talk to me when we first met.
I had an aunt who is married to someone in the Navy and she lived in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I came to Fredericksburg to go to college, and when my aunt moved to Italy, her friends threw a farewell party. Michael and his then-girlfriend came to the party. They were not happy at the time and constantly arguing. He spoke with me at the party, and after they broke up I started going out with him. He got my phone number from his girlfriend, who was actually a friend of mine!
HLM: What are your favorite sounds? Least favorite?
Iraida: When I wore hearing aids, I was always dropping things and couldn’t hear those sounds. Then I would have to backtrack through the house to find the items. With the cochlear implants I hear these types of sounds right away. Now I am careful about putting the dishes away quietly since I can hear them better. I used to put them away loudly because I did not notice the sound! When I wash dishes, the sound of water seems very loud.
I don’t like the sound of aluminum foil crinkling. I make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for my daughter every morning before school and wrap them in aluminum foil, and I find that sound is so loud!
The tick-tock of a clock was one of the first sounds I recognized when I was first implanted. I was sitting in my computer room doing audio rehab, and I paused to listen to the cutest sound—it was the clock on the wall.
Every morning I hear the birds and they are loud, but I enjoy them. I like the music of the 80s, maybe because during that time I was listening to music the most. I love hearing warning beeps from the stove, alert beeps from the pushing of buttons at the gas station, or any machinery—even the sound made by pushing buttons in the checkout lane at the grocery store. I love all those beeping noises. The washer and dryer also make warning noises, and I am amazed at them all.
I love my cochlear implants. They are my gems now. The most wonderful thing about it all, besides being able to hear the birds and crickets, is being able to fully participate in silly and happy chatter with family.
MICHAEL, Iraida’s husband
We started dating each other around 1990. Although she couldn’t hear, I noticed she was a good listener. I remember, at first, we would write on napkins or scrap paper in restaurants to communicate, which seemed sufficient at the time when life seemed to
go by at a slower pace.
As our relationship progressed, we of course needed to communicate better, so we learned some basic American Sign Language. As technologies such as closed captioning, instant messaging, and texting improved, so did our ability to expand into a more interdependent relationship where we could make choices together rather than just using my best judgment.
Deciding to get a cochlear implant was a big decision for both of us, but I confess my biggest incentive for her to do it was so I didn’t have to listen to feedback from her hearing aids!
Now with the latest technology, Iraida is a bilateral cochlear recipient and together we experience the good and the bad issues resulting from her immensely improved hearing.
I remember at first she would ask, “What’s that noise I’m hearing?” and I would have to concentrate to try to isolate the many different sounds we (as hearing people) ignore on a daily basis. Finally, I would say it’s a bird or the kids playing outside. The really amazing sounds she would share were the fizz from a soda or the subtle variance of noise as you passed parked cars from the passenger side windows—“whoosh, whoosh…” she would say, like a child experiencing something for the first time.
These little highlights of hers helped remind me to stop and smell the roses, and not block out all the wonderful everyday senses we tend to take for granted.
Over the years, I have relied upon my hand gestures and exaggerating my pronunciations slightly to compensate for my soft-spoken voice. But now my wife will slap my hands away if I make a sign to remind me that she wants to practice her hearing abilities without all of the tools and aids we’ve developed through time (so far). At which point, I will jokingly say to her: ‘I liked you better before’—and a good hearty laugh follows.
SIENNA, Iraida and Michael’s daughter, age 16
The benefits that came from my mom getting cochlear implants outweighed the risks, and it was life-changing. Before her implants, it was a struggle to communicate with her when my sister or I needed something, and every day there was something we needed, all the time. However, at the time I didn’t know anything could be done to help the situation, and honestly I didn’t think that an implant could help her hearing. It just seemed too good to be true. I was also a bit hesitant about her going through the surgery because I felt it was risky and there is always a chance something could go wrong. But she explained that the doctor told her the surgery was easy, and that she wouldn’t even have to stay in the hospital overnight.
Thankfully, everything went perfectly and I noticed my mom’s hearing coming back when she would get upset with me for making too much noise in my room, or for placing silverware in the sink too loudly and carelessly. In the past, she would never point this out, and it amazed me that she thought it was now too loud!
When my mom is driving me places, she and I can now sing along to the lyrics of songs that I like to play on my iPhone. This is something I treasure because it truly is so much fun! She doesn’t always know the music from my generation, but she has an app that recognizes the song and plays the lyrics, and this, too, is amazing. She has now added some of my favorite songs to her own library on her cell phone—gotta love that!
DELAYNA, Iraida and Michael’s daughter, age 14
Now that my mom has cochlear implants, conversation with her has been much easier. I don’t have to repeat much, unless it’s an unusual or a rarely used word. In the past, I had to repeat myself constantly. We couldn’t really finish our conversation because it was so frustrating for me, especially when I needed her help with my homework back when I was younger. The teachers were teaching me something differently and my mom had her own way of doing schoolwork. Her methods were different, and I tried to explain the way my teacher wanted my schoolwork done, but it was almost impossible to express that. I am so glad my mom has cochlear implants now, and every thought that we communicate is a breeze!
Something funny that she now does when I am talking to her is that she doesn’t stop or pause to look me in the face, as she wants to continue her errands in the kitchen. I kind of want my mom to look at me. Yet, she says she is practicing, and for me to continue talking. It’s a little unusual at times, but it’s really fun to see that she did get my message when she repeats what I had just said. That’s so amazing!
Cindy Dyer designs and photographs for Hearing Loss Magazine. Her photography has been featured in Shutterbug Magazine, The Washington Post and in the Learn & Explore series on nikonusa.org. She is a twice-published USPS Stamp Artist, with two series of Forever stamps—Ferns (released in 2014) and Water Lilies (released in 2015). See more of her work at cindydyerphotography.com, cindydyerdesign.com and on her blog at cindydyer.wordpress.com.