Thursday, June 23, 2011
Help for hearing-impaired Palestinians
Prof. Raphi Walden, a vascular surgeon at the Sheba Medical Center, examines Palestinian patients in the West Bank.
An Israeli hospital teams up with two humanitarian organizations to fit 1,000 Palestinian Arabs with free hearing aids.
A new Israeli-American project is restoring sound to deaf Palestinians in the West Bank, for whom a $1,000 hearing aid is an unattainable luxury.
Due to the Arab tradition of marrying cousins, cases of genetic deafness in this population are rampant.
“We’ve come across several families where all the children are deaf,” says Prof. Raphi Walden, a vascular surgeon at the Sheba Medical Center (www.eng.sheba.co.il) at Tel Hashomer Hospital just outside Tel Aviv, where he is a deputy director. “The heartbreaking thing is that these people never had access to treatment. There is no education and they are so poor, they just can’t afford hearing aids.”
Walden, who is the son-in-law of Israeli President Shimon Peres (“He’s my children’s grandfather!”), helped do some matchmaking with Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (www.phr.org.il) (PHR), his hospital and the US-based Starkey Hearing Foundation (www.starkeyhearingfoundation.org). The project started when the American Friends of Sheba (www.shebamed.org) contacted Starkey, which agreed to supply 1,000 hearing aids.
Hundreds come to seek treatment
Coordinated in the West Bank via PHR, of which Walden is a board member, the program recently facilitated a three-day clinic staffed by 15 Sheba Medical Center ear-nose-throat specialists in Tulkarem, a border Israeli town. Protected by special Palestinian security forces, the physicians were greeted by a lineup of people from ages four to 75 hoping for an answer to their hearing problems. Walden had spread the word among local doctors.
“We had hundreds and hundreds of applications for hearing aids,” he says, noting that there are numerous kinds of hearing deficiencies in the Palestinian population.
“It’s very common, and we came across hundreds of people who never had any treatment for their hearing problem. They are simply not able to attend school.”
Some cases were treated on the spot, and almost 1,000 people were fitted for the hearing aids that were due to arrive at the end of May. They explained that they would visit again to give the devices out and teach users about maintenance.
“It was an incredible and remarkable atmosphere of goodwill and friendship,” says Walden enthusiastically. “There were expressions of gratitude.”
He notes that he did not feel endangered in Tulkarem, where Israeli civilians rarely visit. “Escorted by an elite Palestinian force, we felt absolutely secure and didn’t run into even a shade of a security problem,” he says, crediting PHR with recruiting and coordinating the logistics.
Starkey head Bill Austin was expected to come at the end of May with a group from his foundation to witness the life-changing moment when Palestinian kids, parents and grandparents switch on their hearing aids for the first time.
“This can transform life completely in a young child who can’t hear. Ones who are practically deaf can’t integrate in society, they can’t hear music and they can’t attend school,” says Walden. “This will change their lives in a dramatic way.”
Sadly, many of the deaf people in the West Bank would benefit greatly from hearing aids, yet don’t have access to them, Walden points out.
For the lucky 1,000 receivers of the free hearing aids this spring, the Starkey Foundation will supply each with a year’s worth of batteries and will designate a go-to person in the West Bank for follow-up and questions.
This is some good news worth shouting from the rooftops.