Audiologist’s Mission Promotes Hearing Health in Kenya When audiologist Tomi Browne first traveled to Kenya six years ago, she assumed it would be simply an enlightening trip—one that would broaden her perspective—and that she would return calmly to her life and practice in Northern Virginia. And although the first part of her plan went accordingly, the second—a ... World Beat
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World Beat  |   April 01, 2010
Audiologist’s Mission Promotes Hearing Health in Kenya
Author Notes
  • Kellie Rowden-Racette, print and online editor for The ASHA Leader, can be reached at krowden-racette@asha.org.
    Kellie Rowden-Racette, print and online editor for The ASHA Leader, can be reached at krowden-racette@asha.org.×
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Hearing & Speech Perception / International & Global / World Beat
World Beat   |   April 01, 2010
Audiologist’s Mission Promotes Hearing Health in Kenya
The ASHA Leader, April 2010, Vol. 15, 26-27. doi:10.1044/leader.WB.15042010.26
The ASHA Leader, April 2010, Vol. 15, 26-27. doi:10.1044/leader.WB.15042010.26
When audiologist Tomi Browne first traveled to Kenya six years ago, she assumed it would be simply an enlightening trip—one that would broaden her perspective—and that she would return calmly to her life and practice in Northern Virginia. And although the first part of her plan went accordingly, the second—a calm return—did not.
She embarked on the journey at the request of a patient, Angelo D’Agostino, a physician and Jesuit priest who was the founder of Nyumbani Children’s Home, the first orphanage for HIV-positive children in sub-Saharan Africa, in Karen, Kenya. D’Agostino often traveled to the United States on fundraising trips and for appointments with Browne for help with his hearing difficulties. The two developed a friendship and he invited Browne and her family to visit the orphanage. They finally decided to accept his offer. Like any educated traveler, Browne did her research before the journey, learning about the culture, the problems, and the poverty.
“The Nyumbani Children’s Home had more of the feel of a summer camp than an orphanage—a warm and loving environment,” Browne said. During that first visit she met Mungai, a young boy who lived at Nyumbani. Mungai was deaf as a result of meningitis he had contracted a few months earlier. Browne and Mungai became friends and she kept in touch with him after returning home.
On her second trip to Kenya, she learned that Mungai was becoming increasingly frustrated and was demonstrating signs that he was losing communication skills. “He was clearly frustrated and he didn’t have anyone he could talk to, so I asked D’Agostino if we could look into the possibility of a cochlear implant,” Browne said. But there were obstacles. There are no cochlear implant (CI) services in Kenya for either the surgery or follow-up services. That’s when Browne’s journey really began.
Browne helped arrange for Mungai to come to the United States, live with her family for four months, and receive a cochlear implant. She also committed to traveling back to Kenya regularly to provide follow-up care to Mungai after his implantation.
“It was a big commitment, but when the choice was to either leave this child without access to hearing for the rest of his life or assume responsibility, I couldn’t turn my back,” Browne said.
The director of the Nyumbani Children’s Home learned of Browne’s commitment to regular travel to Kenya and asked if she could check the hearing of other children in the orphanage when she visited.
Browne said “yes” and the floodgates opened. In the first 100 children she checked she found 12 perforated eardrums that weren’t healing; the majority of the children had chronic otitis media.
“And these were the children who had good health care by Kenyan standards,” Browne said. “I could not believe what I was seeing. The Kenyan medical system is so different from ours—the ear is not part of the basic check-up.”
The story of Mungai is now a chapter in a larger narrative—what started as a one-time trip has taken on a life of its own. Browne has since founded a non-profit organization, HEARt of the Village, to help provide audiological services to people with communication disorders who are affected by poverty.
The organization works in eight Nyumbani clinics throughout Kenya and has been assigned 3,500 HIV-positive children who are orphans or who live with family in the slums surrounding Nairobi. According to Browne, all children enrolled in the Nyumbani clinics have access to anti-retroviral medications.
Nyumbani also includes Nyumbani Village, a new community that houses blended families of children (some orphaned) and grandparents (who may have lost their children). The village has been recognized as a model program in Africa and has received funding from the United States Agency for International Development and the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. But the work to restore wellness and health to this population, she said, is far from over.
“One of our most important issues is educating medical professionals so that the new programs will take root and be sustainable,” she said. “We are working with the nurses and others to teach them the importance of hearing health and to show them the problems that can occur if the ears are ignored.”
Browne travels to Kenya about three times per year for two to three weeks, always bringing teams of audiologists. She returned in mid-March from her latest trip with a group of Salus University AuD students and their preceptor, Yell Inverso.
She will leave for Kenya again in May with a group of James Madison University audiology students and their preceptor, Brenda Ryals.
“The students are a huge help—they’re there to help and to learn,” Brown said. “It is an experience of a lifetime.”
Browne likes to involve students because the trips also are an opportunity for the audiology profession to embrace philanthropy. This philosophy is one of the main reasons she encourages and arranges for student groups to travel to Kenya with her on her pilgrimages.
“This public health arena is a frontier that I think we need to embrace as audiologists,” she said. “Children are dying from complications of treatable middle-ear pathology. Inaction is not an option.”
For more information on helping or donating to HEARt of The Village, visit its Web siteor contact Tomi Browne at ttbe@msn.com.
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April 2010
Volume 15, Issue 4