Imagine fleeing your home and your country, taking only what you can carry as explosions ring out around you. Now, imagine living through that as a 9-year-old child, or a 100-year-old senior.
Even more terrifying, you’ve lost your sense of hearing.
Those are the struggles that some of the almost 10 million Ukrainian refugees who fled to Poland have lived through.
They’re also the stories from patients who can now hear again thanks to Valeriy Shafiro, PhD, audiology professor from the College of Health Sciences at RUSH University, along with a team of volunteers.
He was a refugee, too
Shafiro traveled to Poland with a volunteer team led by King Chung, PhD, audiology professor at Northern Illinois University. It was made up of students from NIU and two schools in Brazil, Federal University of Paraiba and University of Sao Paulo, Bauru.
The team needed someone who could speak Ukrainian and Russian, and Shafiro fit the bill. But for him, the trip was far more personal.
Shafiro was a refugee, himself, who came to the United States from the former Soviet Union with his family in his 20s. So his connection to these patients went beyond language.
“I could imagine their perspectives, differences in their views and how they approach situations, what they expect, or how they may feel about certain things,” Shafiro says. “When they talk to somebody they understand, they can relate not just through the literal meaning of language. It makes them more at ease and helps communication.”
The dean’s office at the College of Health Sciences heard about Shafiro’s plans to join the team and happily made the choice to fund his mission. “It was a very quick decision from our dean, Charlotte Royeen, to say, ‘Of course. Please go,’” Shafiro says.
So with the support of RUSH and his family, Shafiro made the trip to Krakow.
The team’s goal was to treat Ukrainian refugees in Poland who were living with hearing loss. They brought along hearing aids donated by GN ReSound, a hearing aid company with offices in the Chicago area.
Hearing aids are out-of-pocket expenses in Poland, and many refugees don’t have the money to get them. The volunteers provided testing and hearing aids to many patients who would otherwise not be able to afford them.
Patients aged 9 to 100
As Shafiro and the team treated patients, they heard their heartbreaking stories. Most were seniors, but they ranged in age from 9 to a woman who’d just turned 100 years old.
“In several cases, their trouble hearing was exacerbated by the experiences that they had,” Shafiro says. “It was hard to say whether this was exposure to loud blasts or more psychological trauma.
“One gentleman had trouble hearing and communicating before. But once the bombing started, he just stopped responding. It wasn't clear if he couldn't hear, or he didn't want to talk. So I think for a number of them, the war just made it worse.”
Some patients had entirely shut down. Since they had to flee, they’d become withdrawn and didn’t try to communicate. But once they had their hearing back, things completely changed.
“We had one girl who was 9, and she cried in the beginning because it's not a fun process, especially for a child,” Shafiro says. “You have to put molding materials in their ear to make your mold.”
But one of the team members helped the girl relax by giving her some molding materials to play with. They let her try making a mold on her mom, and she finally started having fun with the process.
Once she had her new hearing aids, she began to open up and communicate. “Mom said she's doing so much better,” Shafiro says. “The teachers noticed she's participating in class.”
Another patient, the 100-year-old woman, also improved after treatment. “She wasn't talking,” Shafiro says. “You initially had to guess if she was responding to you. But once she received hearing aids, she would say complete phrases and respond to questions.”
Hearing again and coping with trauma
Treatment for hearing loss is unique to each patient. It must address their specific type of hearing loss and even depends on their individual ears.
“It's a very intimate kind of sensory effect,” Shafiro says. “It forms a connection to other memories or associations. For some, the visceral experience of hearing again was overwhelming and brought memories of trauma,” Shafiro says.
Reliving those memories proved challenging. “Sometimes they’d start remembering how they got here or what happened before,” Shafiro says. “And because, for many of them, they were risking their lives, it brought all sorts of emotions. Something can be stirred.”
One of Shafiro’s patients, a woman in her 20s, had to flee Ukraine without her hearing aids. “She was just sitting there completely lost,” Shafiro says. “It was difficult to test her because it wasn't clear if she was just making some sort of noise or expression because she heard something or because she was just trying to elicit a response from us.”
But once the woman was fitted with hearing aids, she started crying. “And she couldn't stop crying until she left,” Shafiro says. “It just seemed like she was overwhelmed.”
She, like several patients, needed time to adjust to being able to hear again. “She came back the next day, and she was just so happy. And she was smiling,” Shafiro says. “Big smiles. And her mother said that she came home and texted all her friends, and it made such a big difference.”
Her experience wasn’t unusual. But with time, all the patients felt better and expressed their gratitude. “Some returned to bring us candy, and one woman even brought us a big cake,” Shafiro says.
The war is not over
All in all, Shafiro and the team provided hearing aids to 44 Ukrainian war refugees and screened more than 200 students at Polish secondary schools, many of whom were also refugees.
Shafiro is thankful for the experience and for the team of volunteers who brought him along on their mission. “Even though the devastation of the war on people’s lives is so vast that it virtually defies comprehension, it’s reassuring to realize that there are so many people around the world who are willing to step up and help,” Shafiro says.
But there is much more work to do for the millions of refugees fleeing from the war and potentially hundreds of thousands who will need hearing treatment.
“The magnitude of the problem is huge,” Shafiro says. “It's not going away, partly because the people who are actually fighting now and have a lot of noise exposure from explosions, they're going to have a lot of hearing trouble. And the war is not even over.”
And the effects of hearing loss go beyond individual patients. “It affects communication with other people, their jobs, and it has very specific costs for society at large,” Shafiro says. “So it’s not just about hearing; it’s also the social cost. It’s the cognitive effects that come later.”
Shafiro would love to return and help more Ukrainian refugees get the treatment they need. In the meantime, he and his family are collecting donations and medical supplies to send overseas.
If you’d like to support Ukrainian refugees, Shafiro recommends making a donation to Razom, a non-profit that provides humanitarian relief to the people of Ukraine.