Thursday, October 22, 2009

Audiologist from McLean helps Kenyan children

Source Link - Audiologist from McLean helps Kenyan children

Andrew Dickson Mungai's second trip to the United States was a whirlwind of doctor appointments, galas, speeches and visits with new and old friends. His first was to get a life-changing procedure.

In 2007, Dr. Tomi Browne brought Mungai to the U.S. for a cochlear implant, an electronic hearing device implanted in the ear to produce useful hearing sensations for people who suffer from severe to profound hearing loss.

Mungai, now 14, lost his hearing at age 9 because of complications from meningitis, HIV and herpes.

Browne, a McLean audiologist, first met Mungai in 2005, when one of her patients, the Rev. Angelo D'Agostino, convinced her to take her family on a trip to Kenya. Physician and Jesuit priest D'Agostino, now deceased, was the founder of the Nyumbani Children's Home in Nairobi, Kenya, which was the country's first facility for HIV-positive children.

The Brownes arrived with about $50,000 worth of donated computers, medicine and school supplies they had collected from family, friends and colleagues.

When Browne met Mungai, a resident at Nyumbani, she was able to communicate a bit with him by using sign language, so "they developed a bond right away," said Sister Julie Mulvihill, one of the nuns who helps operate Nyumbani.

Teachers at Nyumbani were starting to worry that Mungai, an intelligent kid who was able to cover up his hearing loss by teaching himself to read lips, also was going to lose his ability to speak. Browne thought he would be a good candidate for a cochlear implant and began working to bring him to the U.S. for the procedure.

"He was just very special to me and we knew we had to do something," she said.

The catch was that Browne had to agree to continue to travel regularly to Kenya to make the necessary adjustments to Mungai's implant. Upon returning to the U.S., she formed a nonprofit, HEARt of the Village, to raise funds to help Mungai and other Nyumbani children.

Browne now travels to Kenya several times each year to provide ear care for the children in the Nyumbani program; she left for her most recent visit earlier this month. She also arranges for audiology students and other volunteer doctors to provide care in the clinic she set up with donated equipment. The nonprofit also has set up a computer lab for the home.

In Kenya, an ear examination is not part of a regular checkup, Browne said.

"As a result, we've got a lot of kids with serious, chronic ear problems," she said. "Chronic ear infections, if left untreated, can go into something worse."

Mungai, who is able to better communicate since receiving the implant, is "our poster boy," Browne said. The energetic, smiling teenager talked with congressmen, students and many other people during his visit to the U.S. last month, attending a gala for Nyumbani and a fundraiser for HEARt of the Village.

He proudly introduced himself to new friends with a handshake, talked about how he wants to be a pilot when he is older and discussed how he might go to college in Pennsylvania, where he received his cochlear implant.

To hear Mungai tell the story, you might get the impression that a cochlear implant is magical.

"I was hearing well. I was playing, playing, playing even in the car," he said, describing coming home from the hospital after his surgery.

Browne explains that Mungai lived with her family for months in 2007 after receiving the implant, to monitor his progress and make adjustments to the device.

"It takes time for the brain to learn the signals" that the cochlear implant produces, she said.

Aiding Kenyan children has now become a major focus of the Brownes' family life.

Browne sold her audiology practice to work for the nonprofit fulltime, and her husband, Jeff, a political consultant, is now on the Board of Directors for Nyumbani USA, one of six groups worldwide that supports the Kenyan village.

"I wouldn't change a thing," Tomi Browne said.

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