“If you can’t hear, not a lot of learning is going to get done.”
As the mother of a deaf son, Tracey Green doesn’t need to be reminded about the challenges associated with childhood hearing issues. Which is partly why her work as co-ordinator of the Karratha-based Chevron Ear Health Program is so meaningful.
“I’ve had to live the hearing, and deafness life since my son was five years old – and he’s now 28,” Green explains.
“I’m just really passionate about ensuring that all children have really good hearing and the ability to learn at school.”
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In the areas of the Pilbara where the program operates – Dampier, Karratha, Onslow, Pannawonica, Roebourne and Wickham – a primary concern is ear drum health among children, and the dangers of perforation and repeated infections that can lead to longer-term hearing issues.
Detecting problems early is a key focus for the program, which has been in operation since 2011 and involves a modified bus delivering mobile ear health services to communities.
“We run a screening program through the schools, the daycares and the kindies – and our aim is to ensure that every child has the ability to hear and learn at school,” Green said.
“Hearing is quite a hidden disability. You can’t see it, so you need to have a screening program to identify it.
“And once it’s identified, it’s really important that it’s addressed, because if kids can’t hear then they can’t engage and it’s very hard to get them to attend school.”
The program, part of a suite of services delivered around the State by Telethon Speech and Hearing, is very much based on a multidisciplinary approach.
Apart from the on-the-ground presence in Karratha led by Green, there are six visits a year from a Perth-based team consisting of an audiologist, a nurse practitioner, a GP, a specialist anesthetist and an ear, nose and throat specialist.
As audiologist Trude Hallaraker explains, it’s a collaborative effort – and not only among the program staff.
“We [firstly] go in and carry out screening, which helps identify any issues, and next I go in and do audiological assessments,” Hallaraker said.
“From there, we can refer children on for any speech assessment, through to our GPs or nurse practitioners, and then on to our specialists – ear, nose, and throat, and anesthetists, if needed.
“For some people, they might actually need to go the whole way through into surgery, which we can also provide up there in the Pilbara.
“I think for us, the amazing part of the program – and the thing I get really excited about – is the fact that we’re working so closely with the communities, and they’re really directing us in terms of our approach.
“I’ve been doing this since 2015 and it’s lovely to see how those relationships have developed and just what impact we’re having.
“We started off with the pediatric program only and it’s now evolved to include adults as well. And that came about because a lot of the adults in the community were seeing just how beneficial what we were doing was.”
Telethon Speech and Hearing speech pathologist Megan Harrap, who is based at Onslow Primary School as part of 12-month pilot program testing all students aged four to eight, said early intervention on hearing issues could be key to improved future literacy outcomes.
“Early intervention for any child is essential, but particularly a child with a hearing loss – whether it be permanent or intermittent, which is the case for the kids with middle ear issues,” Harrap said.
“Language is the foundation for all learning, so without those well-developed language skills it is more difficult for them to succeed at school.
“Speech and language is also the foundation for literacy. By getting in early and getting those skills strengthened when they’re most ready to learn, we are setting children up for a greater chance of success at school.”
Some children with badly damaged ear drums may require a procedure known as myringoplasty to repair the situation.
But the operation can’t take place until the child is at least eight years of age and has been free of ear infections for six months.
Which is where a neat little piece of equipment known as a “bone conductor” comes in, bypassing the outer and middle ear to transmit sound directly to the cochlear and significantly improve hearing outcomes.
“It can be placed inside a headband for little girls, or a baseball cap for little boys,” Green said.
“[Children] are less embarrassed to wear a device like this.
“When the eardrum is very badly perforated, hearing levels drop very low.
“[The bone conductor] taps on to the bones in the back of your head and sends signals through to the cochlear, which then transfers those signals to the brain allowing you to hear.
“It’s an amazing little device that allows a child to learn at school.”
Since the Chevron Ear Health Program started, the number of Aboriginal children in the Pilbara under the age of seven severely affected by middle ear disease has dropped from 51 per cent to 33 per cent. More than 10,000 ear health screenings have been carried out over the past decade.
“We’ve very proud to have partnered with Telethon Speech & Hearing to develop a best practice model of ear care health for the Pilbara,” Chevron Australia Senior Community Engagement Advisor Tiffany Winch-Buist said.
“Chevron Australia is committed to partnering for progress and achieving meaningful health outcomes in the communities in which we operate – and the Chevron Ear Health program is a great example of that.”
Green said the support of Chevron to fund and run the program was vital in ensuring Indigenous children did not fall through the gaps because of hearing issues.
“Without a company like Chevron it’s very difficult to treat these children,” she said.
“It’s difficult for a lot of their parents to attend appointments. Many are challenged with their circumstances, they may not have transport and there’s not a lot of public transport available in the regions either.
“We pretty much provide the transport to every appointment. Whether it be to attend our ENT clinics, our audiology clinics, or if we’re referring on to an outside provider to get a hearing device, we will assist parents to attend those appointments.
“It’s no good to just identify a problem, you need to actually fix the problem. Chevron Australia has been funding this since 2011, which has been a really big advantage to the people of the Pilbara.”