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Audiologists offer services in impoverished Mexican city


January 07, 2008

The 89-year-old woman from Guaymas, Mexico, was depressed and unhappy. She had loved to sing throughout her life, but now her voice was still. She could not hear, and she could not sing unless she could hear herself make music.

All that changed in an instant, thanks to volunteers with the Mesa Baseline Rotary Club’s “Help Me to Hear” program, which takes audiologists and physicians each year to the impoverished Mexican city to provide ear, nose and throat examinations.

The team for this year’s trip had a number of Sun Devil connections, including Gail Belus, a new associate clinical professor of audiology at ASU; Bethany Stover, a third-year doctoral student in audiology at ASU; and several ASU graduates who now are physicians or audiologists.

A half-dozen students from other schools, besides Stover, went on the trip, as well as nearly 20 Rotary members and volunteers.

Belus says she is happy to see students participating on the team.

“It instills in them the need for volunteerism,” she says.

Mesa Baseline Rotary has been organizing teams of audiologists and doctors to conduct medical missions to Guaymas, which is a sister city of Mesa, and other locations in the Mexican state of Sonora since 1992, and Belus has made the eight- to 10-hour bus trip for the past three years. The team treats children referred by the school, as well as senior citizens and anyone else who needs to have their hearing tested or see an ear, nose and throat specialist.

“The city of Guaymas, which has a population of 150,000, only has one ear, nose and throat specialist,” Belus says.

On the four-day trip, which includes two full days of clinical work, the team usually examines 150 to 200 patients.

“This year, we provided care to 218 people, mainly kids, and fitted 104 hearing aides,” Belus says. “Some of the children, who are found to have hearing difficulties, are 2 and 3 years old. Here in Arizona, all babies are screened before they leave the hospital and we know if there is a potential for problems.”

This year, the team found more than two dozen children who needed some kind of surgery, such as tubes inserted in their ears, Belus says.

“We also examined three children with suspected cholesteatoma, or tumors growing in their middle ear, which is a side effect of chronic middle-ear infection,” she says.

For those children who need surgery, the Rotary Club will try to get them temporary visas to come across the border for treatment.

Some of the work brings immediate gratification, such as when elderly parents are fitted with hearing aids.

“They come in threadbare clothing and are withdrawn,” Belus says. “Then they are in tears because they can talk with their children again.”

Treating the children is rewarding, but not as dramatic, she says, adding: “They have been having a hard time in school because of their hearing, so we don’t see the benefit that day.”

The mission is conducted in Guaymas by the local Rotary Club, which has 12 members, Belus says.

“It’s a difficult trip in some ways sometimes the toilets don’t work, and there are a large number of patients to see, but it’s an incredible trip,” she says. “Reed Haws, the project coordinator for the Rotary Club, organizes everything so we can concentrate on the work.”

The tests and treatment are carried out at a school, where the team’s donated equipment has been permanently located.

“Banner Health has given some equipment,” Belus says. “Getting it over the border is difficult, but the Rotary Club in Nogales helps us with the red tape.”

The donations include a new test booth, which replaced the original booth – a converted meat locker with no ventilation.

Belus says it is well worth the time, effort and money it costs her to go each year (volunteers are encouraged to donate a minimum of $100 to offset the costs of lodging and food) because the transformations are “incredible,” such as the 89-year-old woman who couldn’t sing.

“She got a pair of hearing aids, and she started singing a bit,” Belus says.