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Sunday, July 1, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The sounds of silence

Seattle Times medical writer

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PORT ORCHARD - There were hints that silence was descending upon Penny Allen: missed words in conversations, a wristwatch alarm she couldn't hear, a ringing in her ears.

But terror struck one morning when a co-worker told the flight attendant that the phone was ringing a few feet away on the jetliner's boarding ramp.

How would she continue her career with a hearing problem? How would she fake it in a job so dependent on conversation? No laws protected her back then.

"It never occurred to me to quit my job. It was my identity," said Allen. "And I couldn't see a way out of it except to put one foot in front of the other."

She went through the classic stages of grief - denial, anger, depression - when she discovered she was going deaf 16 years ago.

At 40, she felt she was far too young to have such "an old person's problem." As a supervising flight attendant and mother of two, she despaired about where her life would now lead.

Facing progressive, irreversible hearing loss is like losing a core part of one's being, say those who have dealt with it. Recovering one's bearings after the diagnosis can be an ultimate challenge - one that is facing increasing numbers of middle-aged Americans.

Penny Allen met the challenge with determination, yet the stress and depression she experienced were at times almost unbearable, she said.

She conceded her disability and was fitted for hearing aids. Doctors told her nothing else could help the severe hearing loss caused by otosclerosis - deterioration of crucial bones in the middle ear - and damage to her inner ear. She believes she inherited otosclerosis from her father, and suffered noise damage from propeller-driven airliners she flew on early in her career.

"I contacted someone in our union, and she bought me a book on sign language and told me to keep my mouth shut," said Allen.

For the next 10 years, she hid her hearing aids with her hair and her disability with finesse.

When it was difficult to hear on the airplane's intercom, she would casually declare it too noisy and pass the call to a co-worker. She worked as much as she could in the galley. She taught herself to read lips, and displayed beverage and food choices to passengers to minimize conversation. For safety, she always made sure a co-worker was nearby.

Hanging on to her self-esteem was another matter.

She often misunderstood conversations and made inappropriate comments when talking with friends. Her teenage son and daughter would grow impatient having to repeat things and say, "Oh, forget it, Mom." She was angry no one seemed to understand.

A gradual withdrawal

Allen withdrew into her hobbies - reading, sewing, gardening. She spent hours watching the fish in a huge dining-room aquarium, meticulously rearranging rocks and cleaning algae from the glass.

She refused to talk about her hearing loss. No one beyond her family and best friend knew. On an emotional level, and in the glamorous realm of world air travel, she would not accept that she had a disability.

"If I didn't talk about it," she said, "it didn't exist."

Her depression deepened with the death of her best friend to breast cancer and the stress of her job. She had nightmares about death and actually believed at one point that she was dying.

Allen retired in 1995 after 30 years with United Airlines, 10 of them struggling with hearing loss. She was relieved, but also "filled with rage."

"I felt the whole 10 years was just survival," she said. "I didn't enjoy my family or my job."

Rediscovering life

But after a year away from work, she began to come out of her shell. Her audiologist saw great potential in Allen's outgoing nature, and persuaded her to start a Kitsap County chapter of SHHH, Self Help for Hard of Hearing People.

Allen found many other relatively young people with hearing loss. She learned that by telling her story, she helped others cope.

Friendships returned, and new ones were made.

Allen began talking about hearing loss to anyone who wanted to know.

She invites discussion in imaginative ways. One day, while painting flowers on her bathroom walls, she decided on a whim to paint the old flesh-colored hearing aids that fit behind her ears. First came tiny posies, with rhinestones as centers. Then she painted the aids she uses.

Kids love them. So do adults, who first want to know more about the hearing aids, then about hearing loss.

Allen still struggles with deafness. Noisy environments are a difficult challenge. At parties she attends with her husband, she takes her own "getaway car" in case she tires of trying to make sense of conversations. Sometimes, "depending on my mood," she wears a button that declares, "I'm not stupid, I'm just hard of hearing."

She doesn't hesitate to ask people to speak more slowly or clearly, and finds most are eager to comply. She invokes the Americans with Disabilities Act for help when needed - requesting an assisted-listening device, for example, at a conference on sewing.

Technology helps

State-of-the-art equipment also helps. Her hearing aids can be programmed with a remote control to tune out background noise or hear only from a certain direction. She has an FM transmitter the size of a TV remote control that she can put on a restaurant table to better hear conversation. She uses specially equipped telephones, and has a home-security system that uses flashing lights as alarms.

It all plugs her into the world of sound like never before. But her changed outlook does so much more. She has moved, she says, "from the shroud of isolation I had woven."

"Others are no more concerned with my hearing loss as a condition for friendship than they are with the color of my eyes," she wrote in the SHHH newsletter a few years ago.

"I had passed judgment on myself."

Warren King can be reached at 206-464-2247 or wking@seattletimes.com.

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