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One Professor’s Journey to Hear Through the Cochlear Implant

By Skylar Dorr 

She didn’t know sign language; she didn’t know how to lip-read. She’d just gone from hearing perfectly to profoundly deaf within the span of a day. 

Carol Lynn Kearney is an AU senior adjunct professor of American Sign Language. Photo provided by Carol Kearney

As Carol Lynn Kearney entered her first semester at Nassau Community College (NCC) nearly 40 years ago, she, like many college students, gained newfound independence and perspective. With a loving boyfriend and a supportive family by her side, she majored in executive secretarial science and had dreams of working for an airline and traveling the world. 

She had no idea that by her second semester, her life would change completely. At just 18 years old, Kearney was diagnosed with bacterial spinal meningitis, an infection of the fluid and membranes around the brain and spinal cord. She became extremely sick and fell into a coma. On Feb. 11, 1980, whether it was the coma, antibiotics or the illness itself, her hearing was taken completely and without warning. “I had something for 18 years,” Kearney said, “and then it was gone overnight.” 

Rather than let it consume her, Kearney, then O’Neill, adapted to this change. She continued her classes at NCC, even starting a support group specifically for people who were abled and had become disabled later in life, like herself. She got engaged to her boyfriend, Jim Kearney, who remained by her side and supported her throughout the whole ordeal. 

Kearney’s father initially wondered if anything could be done for her in regard to her hearing loss, and after finding out about a recent medical breakthrough to return hearing to the deaf, he let her know that this was an option for her. Upon receiving this news, she began to write to doctors all over the world about the cochlear implant.

At the time, the cochlear implant was not approved by the FDA. The University of California answered, detailing that they wanted her to fly out for an evaluation. She went there for a week of testing. However, with her recent diagnosis of systemic lupus, combined with her recent engagement and family back home, it just wasn’t practical to stay there for the program. Ultimately she declined and returned to NCC. 

It was there that her counselor and friend sent her an article detailing that New York University (NYU) was looking for candidates for that same exact surgery. In 1984, she met with the head of the project, Dr. Noel Cohen, along with the rest of his team, and they began working together almost immediately. 

She and the team were making history, as she would be one of only two people to receive the multi-channel implant on the East Coast at NYU. The night before the surgery, camera crews and journalists sat outside the facility, ready to interview her and the team. However, her doctor entered the room with grave news: her systemic lupus had flared up, and subsequently, the surgery was canceled. Kearney and her family were devastated; she desperately wanted to hear again, and to hear her fiancé say the words “I love you. I do” on their wedding day. 

They did agree to re-implant her once her lupus was under control, and in March 1984, Kearney became the second person on the East Coast to be implanted with a multi-channel cochlear implant. 

That August, she was finally able to hear her husband’s voice at her wedding. But the sound she was hearing with the implant wasn’t the same sound she’d heard before her hearing loss. With the implant turned on, she is hard of hearing, and sound is often distorted. Without the implant on, she is profoundly deaf and has a constant ringing in her head caused by tinnitus.

With all that was going on, including the trips back and forth to NYU, a college education was still a top priority for Kearney. “I really focused on that part of me, and not the deaf part, because there was nothing I could do about that,” she said. 

She was a dean's list student and obtained her associate degree in liberal arts at NCC. She furthered her education at Adelphi University, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in Elementary/Special Education and a master’s in Deaf Education. 

If there was anything that she wanted to do at Adelphi, she had to get an interpreter. During the early years of being a deaf student, there was an instance where she arrived at class, and the interpreter never showed up. 

“At that point,” she said, “I’m stuck.” If there were services available for her then, she would've gone to them, but there wasn’t much she could do. Now, Adelphi has a much bigger program and provides more accessibility for the Deaf. 

Today, Kearney resides in Lynbrook and is a senior adjunct faculty member at Adelphi. She has been involved in Deaf education at Adelphi as a supervisor of student teachers as well as teaching sign language here for almost 30 years. She also taught at Molloy University for 11 years. 

“When I came here [Adelphi] to teach, I was bringing a part of me that I didn’t know yet,” said Kearney. She admits that being a deaf teacher was not her dream. At the time, there were few career choices available for the deaf. 

“I never considered being a deaf teacher,” said Kearney. Despite this not being her initial choice, she is enthusiastic about Deaf culture, and an inspiration for many students taking her course. 

“She built my love of sign language,” said Michael Korotz, a former student as well as the primary ASL tutor at Adelphi. “It started with her.” 

And he’s not the only student who thinks so. Kearney has worked to make a real, genuine connection with her students. “I love teaching adults sign,” she said.

Once a semester, she speaks to the students taking Adelphi’s Audiological Rehabilitation class about her experience with her deafness and her journey to get the cochlear implant.

“She is a wonderful example of what cochlear implants can do, and their limitations as well,” said Janet Schoepflin, who was the head of her department at the Hy Weinberg Center for Communication Disorders and teaches the audiology course. 

Kearney’s journey from being thrust into a world without sound, to becoming a thriving educator and wonderful wife and mother, was not an easy journey by any means. “I never accepted it [deafness]” she said, “but I adapted to it.” 

To this day, she still holds out the hope that something is out there still to come in regard to an implant. There is one thing, however, that has remained a constant in her journey. Kearney may have lost her hearing, but she never lost her voice. 

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