Speech and Hearing

Written by: 
Nancy Kolsti
Photography by: 
Gary Payne

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When parents of a 10-month-old little girl born with a severe hearing impairment realized their daughter could not hear them and was having issues with delayed speech, they turned to Phallon Doss ('11 Au.D.) for help. After fitting the baby with hearing aids in her clinic in Schertz, Doss was reminded of the personal fulfillment she receives from her work.

"When I turned on the baby's hearing aids, her eyes lit up. Her parents called for her, and she turned to them immediately. Everyone in the room became emotional," Doss says, adding that by the next appointment the baby was talking up a storm, now that she could hear her own voice.

As the owner of Doss Audiology and Hearing Center, the first and only audiology clinic in the small town near San Antonio, Doss serves patients of all ages: newborns to elderly patients who have suffered gradual hearing loss and may not hear sounds others take for granted, such as chirping birds, doorbells, rustling leaves and car turn signals.

She was recently named "The Face of Hearing Healthcare" by San Antonio magazine and featured in San Antonio Women Magazine as a leader in senior health care. She also is the educational audiologist for the local school district, providing students with hearing tests and checking and maintaining hearing aids for those who are hearing impaired.

Since she opened Doss Audiology in 2013, she says the center has treated more than 3,000 patients and doubled its staff.

"Many people believe hearing loss only happens to older people, but it can happen at any age," Doss says. "I care about my patients. My reward is seeing their lives improve with better hearing."

Growing field

Doss and other graduates of UNT's Department of Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology are responding to an increasing need for professionals in these fields. The American Speech-Language Hearing Association projects that job opportunities for treating hearing disorders will increase 37 percent by 2020, and opportunities for treating speech disorders will increase 23 percent.

The association attributes the growth to aging baby boomers and more early identification of children with hearing and speech disorders. Also, the spectrum of communication disorders has expanded to include issues caused by traumatic injuries.

The degrees required to receive state licenses to practice in Texas and other states are a master's in speech-language pathology or a doctorate in audiology -- a UNT program that was just ranked No. 48 in U.S. News & World Report's 2017 Best Graduate Schools.

Also ranked a Tier One research university by the Carnegie Classification, UNT is among the nation's top 115 research institutions. UNT students are prepared for the workplace through research opportunities and practical experiences.

They are required to complete clinical work with clients, under faculty supervision -- an opportunity available in UNT's Speech and Hearing Center. As a student, Doss worked as a hearing aid technician in the center, which provides diagnostic and treatment services for children and adults with hearing and speech disorders. She says it was there that she learned how to interact with clients.

She also conducted research with Amyn Amlani, an associate professor in the department, investigating links between people's perception of loudness and the shape of their ear canals. Thanks in part to the research, which Doss presented at an American Academy of Audiology convention, she was named UNT's Outstanding Doctoral Student in Audiology in 2011.

She now works to build personal relationships with her patients outside of her practice, volunteering at the Schertz Senior Center and holding an annual Sounds of Fall Festival with games and other fun activities for children.

"My patients become like family to me," she says. "Working with them one-on-one is the best part of my job."

Gift of sound

Brad Stewart ('08, '12 Au.D.) Brad Stewart ('08, '12 Au.D.) also has filled a special niche in audiology services. Knowing that many older people who need hearing aids have mobility issues or cannot drive and find it difficult to go to medical offices, Stewart opened ClearLife Hearing Care, a house call-focused practice, in 2014.

He and his staff serve clients in Collin, Dallas and Denton counties, going to residences, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and assisted living facilities to provide treatment. Stewart says portable technology allows him to provide hearing tests and adjust hearing aids in a client's environment.

"If the client is in a quiet clinic environment having the hearing aids adjusted, it's often difficult to simulate the situation where he or she is having trouble," he says. "In an everyday environment, audiologists can account for true background noise."

ClearLife uses a concierge approach, with clients calling audiologists directly whenever they need services.

"We're starting to get more demand from busy baby boomers who are still working," Stewart says. "We'll go to their workplaces to assist them."

Like Doss, Stewart says he was prepared to open his own practice after completing clinical rotations as a UNT student. He also combined his love of music, particularly playing guitar, with audiology by researching hearing loss in jazz musicians.

Stewart says he loves to see clients become more animated with others and watch their body language "go from a resigned slump to engagement." One man in his 90s could not understand his family members unless they wrote on a whiteboard and, like many of Stewart's clients, just nodded and stayed silent during conversations.

"The man's children called the hearing aids a miracle. Their dad had gradually faded away, but with the aids he got his personality back," Stewart says. "Often when people turn on hearing aids for the first time, their eyes light up and they sometimes cry about sounds they haven't heard in years."

Speech therapy

Laura Lopez ('12 M.S.) Laura Lopez ('12 M.S.) says the reward from her job is seeing a child who is doing poorly in school improve with the speech therapy she offers. As the speech-language pathologist at two elementary schools in Plano, she teaches skills in articulation, fluency and language comprehension and expression.

"Part of my job also is helping with social skills, such as starting conversations and listening," she says.

She recalls helping a student who, in addition to having a speech impediment, "said things a little too bluntly." Lopez taught her to understand how her tone may hurt others' feelings.

"She was very one-sided in her conversations. It's been cool to see her mature and consider others before speaking," Lopez says. "I enjoy collaborating with teachers and parents on students' success."

Brandon Meiner ('00 M.A.) Like Lopez, Brandon Meiner ('00 M.A.) became a pediatric speech therapist after earning his degree from UNT, but the past 11 years he's worked in the surgical and intensive care units of Wise Health System's hospital in Decatur. Meiner, the supervisor of speech therapy for the system, says he meets most of his patients just after they have suffered a stroke, brain injury or other acute medical condition.

Many are older adults who have swallowing disorders due to the strokes and brain injuries and may need to be fed via tubes. Meiner leads them through exercises to coordinate the muscles in the throat and stimulate nerves that trigger the swallow reflex.

"I think about how I would feel if it was my mom or dad with a feeding tube," he says, "and I try to reassure the families."

Grateful for his UNT education, Meiner accepts current students for practicums at Wise Health System's Fit-N-Wise outpatient rehabilitation program. He speaks to UNT classes and campus meetings of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association.

"This field is always advancing," he says. "It's helpful to me to see what is being taught to students now."

Doss also is paying it forward. She teaches online courses to future audiologists in Guyana -- her family's home nation -- through the University of Guyana and the American Speech-Language Hearing Association.

"I want to share the knowledge I received with others as much as I can," she says.



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