By: Javacia Harris Bowser
Long before Abigail Weyerman was an Albert Schweitzer Fellow, she was committed to helping people experiencing hearing loss get the treatment that they need. In an audiology class during her senior year at Auburn University, Abigail learned how expensive hearing aids can be (today average prices range from $1,000 to $4,000 for just one hearing aid) and she learned that the devices are rarely covered by insurance – especially in Alabama.
She was determined to do something about this.
For her fellowship project, Abigail has partnered with Southeast Alabama Area Health Education Center to provide hearing screenings to residents in Auburn and surrounding areas. Those who don’t pass the screening will be referred to a not-for-profit clinic for a full hearing evaluation and fitting of hearing aids and assistive listening devices.
“I’m finally doing what I’ve wanted to do for several years,” says Abigail, a third-year audiology doctoral student at Auburn University. “The Fellowship just pushed me to complete it now.”
Abigail’s project kicked off in June and she’s already identified more than 40 individuals with untreated hearing loss. She credits the momentum of her project in part to her academic mentor Erin Reynolds Peacock, an audiologist and clinical lecturer at Auburn University.
“I have a wonderful academic mentor and she has gone with me to every screening,” Abigail says. “She has really good contacts through Auburn’s Rural Health Initiative, and they have been super supportive of us.”
For Abigail, the issue of affordable health care is personal. During the first semester of her doctoral program, she lost her health insurance.
“I was already interested in helping people get access because I knew what a great need that was, especially here in Auburn and Chambers County, but then my first semester my father passed away and I lost my health insurance and it completely changed my perspective,” she says. “It was just different. I can’t even put it into words.”
So she put those feelings into action.
In addition to the hearing screenings, Abigail is also giving patients a survey to gauge if they can afford treatment for hearing loss and their attitudes toward getting treatment.
“We’ve gotten several survey results that are saying, ‘I’m really scared that if my friends or family found out, they would treat me differently, but I still want treatment,’” Abigail explains.
“People try to hide their hearing loss, so they don’t want to wear hearing aids that would be visible, but what we’re seeing is for some people who can’t afford treatment, they are willing to wear an external aid, even though they feel that stigma. Their need for treatment goes beyond their feelings of being treated differently because of their hearing loss.”
When Abigail began her project, she hoped that she’d be able to give people donated hearing aids to people who needed them but after learning this wasn’t yet an option she had to pivot.
So she created educational handouts to make people aware of low cost hearing assistive devices that they could purchase.
“It was unexpectedly well received,” she says. The cheaper options are bulkier and therefore very visible, she explains.
“But we saw that it’s so needed, and people want to hear so bad that they’re still willing to do something and they just didn’t know that that was another option,” Abigail adds.
She’s also working with another doctoral student to get the educational handouts translated into Spanish so the project can help even more people.
“Auburn is placed right in the middle of a lot of areas that are lacking access to health care,” she says. “So what a great position for the university to be placed in that we can send students out.”
Abigail is still investigating ways to get free or low-cost hearing aids to patients who need but can’t afford them and her mentor and others are cheering her on along the way.
“It’s encouraging to see how many people believe that this is needed and want me to keep going,” she says.
In just a few months as a fellow, Abigail says she’s already learned valuable lessons: “I have to pivot fast and think on my toes and really stay persistent.”
As Abigail’s fellowship year continues, she knows she’s bound to face more challenges. But she’s ready for what may come.
“If something doesn’t work, I need to try something else,” says Abigail. “Already the project has shown me the importance of people having an advocate that fights for them. And right now, as a Schweitzer Fellow, I am that advocate for these people. So, I have to persevere.”