Audiology graduate student shifted career paths out of a desire to help her son and others who are deaf and hard of hearing
Carmen Valero-Aracama will graduate in May from the Program in Audiology and Communication Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine with her second doctorate. While a doctoral degree is always considered an academic success, this particular one also represents triumph over personal tragedy and a mother’s love for her son.
Valero-Aracama’s route to audiology began in her native Spain, where she studied environmental science. A scholarship then took her to Japan, where she earned a master’s degree in horticulture and met her husband, an American. The journey continued to Florida, where she lost him unexpectedly. But not before earning her doctorate in horticulture and having their son, Luca, who, at 18 months, was diagnosed as profoundly deaf.
A baby changes everything. So does losing a husband.
News reports of the accident that killed her husband suggest a distracted driver drifted onto the shoulder of the road and struck the bicyclist from behind. Doctors gave 50 units of blood in the attempt to save his life. Welch McNair Bostick III was pronounced dead five hours after the accident. He was posthumously awarded a doctoral degree he had been only months from completing. A scholarship and a lab at the University of Florida are named in his honor. Luca was nine months old.
“After the accident, we had a very traumatic few years,” Valero-Aracama said. “I went home to Spain for a while, but I came back.”
Around Luca’s first birthday, Valero-Aracama knew something wasn’t quite right. He didn’t respond to his name the way he should have, she remembered. He didn’t startle at loud noises.
“He would cry if he couldn’t see me, even if I was directly behind him and speaking to him,” she said. “But he was so visual and so good at figuring things out from the visual context that when I found out he was profoundly deaf in both ears, it still caught me by surprise.”
Now an audiologist, Valero-Aracama can look back and see the signs of potential hearing problems that were there from the beginning. Luca didn’t pass the hearing test given to all infants at birth. But she didn’t worry too much because at three weeks he did pass a test that measures the brain’s response to sound while sleeping. A behavioral test at six months of age also showed that he was hearing. But Valero-Aracama suspects these test results weren’t quite normal because the doctors asked her to return when Luca was 10 months old. That appointment didn’t happen, coming so soon after the loss of her husband — but also because doctors had told her Luca could hear.
“No one told me that a child’s hearing could disappear,” Valero-Aracama said. “This is part of the reason I decided to go into audiology. I’m the type of person who can process a lot of information from a doctor or a medical professional. But no one ever told me they were seeing a red flag.”
After the diagnosis, Luca received cochlear implants, first in one ear and then in the other. Cochlear implants are electronic devices that replace the function of the inner ear. Sound waves are picked up by the implant’s microphone and processed into electrical signals. Electrodes embedded in the spiral-shaped cochlea then transmit those impulses to the brain. But Luca would need help learning how to interpret these new signals.
“When Luca was born, I would speak to him in Spanish, and my husband, McNair, would speak to him in English,” she said. “We wanted him to be bilingual. But after the diagnosis, I found out he was way behind his hearing peers. He was not progressing with speech and language comprehension in either language.”
So Valero-Aracama switched to speaking only English to Luca and embarked on a self-taught crash course in hearing loss, traveling around the country, attending conferences and looking for the best programs and educational opportunities for children who are deaf and hard of hearing. And that is how they came to St. Louis.
Between Washington University’s Program in Audiology and Communications Sciences (PACS), the Central Institute for the Deaf, the Moog Center for Deaf Education and other institutions, St. Louis has an unusually high concentration of resources for children and adults who are hearing impaired.
“At that time, working with the audiologists who were helping Luca, it just occurred to me that I could do the same thing,” Valero-Aracama said. “My son is always going to need an audiologist in his life. I would keep up with the field regardless, but the fact that I can give back and help others is very fulfilling for me. I have so much experience as a parent, I feel like I can especially help other parents going through this with their children.”
Valero-Aracama works with children and adults with hearing loss who may have cochlear implants or hearing aids. She serves as a Cochlear Awareness Network Ambassador and is active in local support groups for people with hearing loss.
“I would like to do research in my future career,” she said. “Cochlear implants are only about 30 years old. New technologies are coming out constantly, and we learn so much from the experiences the patients have with them. That’s why I like to work with both children and adults. And through the support groups, my son has met a lot of adults who have cochlear implants, just like he does.”
Today, Luca Bostick-Valero is 10 and a third-grader at an area elementary school. With some support from Special School District, Luca is in a mainstream classroom, learning alongside hearing classmates. His teacher wears a microphone that transmits her voice directly to his implants.
“Cochlear implants are pretty amazing,” Valero-Aracama said. “Luca loves music. He is learning to play the violin.”
And he may yet pick up Spanish.
“I speak Spanish with a lot of my friends, so he’s used to listening to it,” Valero-Aracama said. “I think he understands more than I give him credit for. In his school, he has the best accent in his Spanish class. He has an ear for it. We’re going to Spain this summer, so I’m hopeful.”
by Julia Evangelou Strait