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  • Writer's pictureKatie Ahlfield

Introducing myself to VCF Blog

Updated: Oct 14, 2018

People have inquired how I became deaf- so, here goes my story…

Note: Tried my best to keep it short & sweet; included everything that is applicable to all deaf aspects in my life. I hope this will help you be able to relate, understand from a deaf child's perspective, or some of what a parent went through, and more.

I was born hearing & developing just fine like every other baby until at 13 months old- I came down with a fever of dangerously 104 degrees; screaming in pain with arching backwards unnaturally far. I was taken to my primary doctor & was sent to the hospital instantly. They extracted the fluid from my spine; it came out white. There was only one obvious visual recognition for this diagnosis, hence the Bacterial Meningitis Disease. It's a very deadly inflammatory disease that multiples exponentially and impacts the spinal cord and the brain cavity.

With that, we were told I needed the right treatment within 4 hours or I will be dead. I was living on Kauai, one of the smallest Hawaiian Islands. Kauai had only one hospital on the island and did not have the resources I urgently needed to treat the disease. They sent me over to O’ahu in an emergency helicopter that could only carry minimum number of ER Paramedics & myself. Not including my mother due to the weight limit on the helicopter, she had to let me go on my own. She met me on the other island O’ahu few hours later after arranging last minute plans with my older sister’s care and Dad as well as booking a last-minute flight ride.

I fought the disease for two weeks; during this time- I received series of treatments trying to relieve my agonizing pain from the swelling pressure of thin tissue called Meninges that lays on top of my brain with no way relieve the pressure between the brain & skull. There were also pains within all of my spine cord and challenges in keeping my body temperature in control. The pain from the illness was extremely painfuI that I was dosed with large amounts of morphine to relieve me for the meantime that it caused my body to drift into deep sleep that my lungs slowed down, then my heart followed. Thankfully, my mother was beside me at the time & banged on my chest to wake my body up to keep functioning. I almost died six times in that two weeks.

After I defeated the disease, the physicians found I became deaf at some point in my battling the disease. They were unable to answer what specifically caused my deafness; they still are unable to find the exact cause to this day. It could have been from any of the following: the disease itself, the fever, the immense inflammatory responses within the ear system, extreme pressure stress within my skull cavity from the swelling meninges, or the number of times I almost died.

I lost all coordination and equilibrium of the spine. All in all, I was basically a big newborn baby all over again. I couldn’t sit up or hold my neck up, or anything that is connected to the spinal cord. Regardless my hearing loss, I was very fortunate to be survive the disease ordeal & not become blind, paralyzed, mentally retarded, or most of all for those who encountered this disease pass away. The paralysis was a possibility in my case to the loss of control to the spine. Although, I slowly regained my equilibrium and started walking again after I was 3 years old two years later.

My mother was already exposed to some deaf culture for she had a deaf friend on the island. So, sign language wasn’t a foreign language to her. My family learned sign language to communicate with me throughout my life. This has been a real blessing in many ways as it opened up all the barriers in life and developed a good family bond altogether. My family didn’t let this loss of hearing become my excuse to set back in my developments. They pushed me forward and harder!

I stayed in mainstream school all of my life for the best education I could obtain. They pushed me to try harder; more than the hearing kids needed to because they hear what people say. They can easily apply that into their learnings, in which I had to work harder on. I only know what I see and read, hearing people also have the ears to hear all different types of dialects, idioms, phrases, so forth. There wasn't any sign language interpreter on the island where we lived, I still attended mainstream school locally there with a personal aide who stayed with me at all time. During my schooling there, I practiced on my speech at the public school. The speech therapist was so sweet and very helpful. My speech skills was born and practiced with her. My parents were able to understand me with ease. Mom & I flew to O’ahu once a week monthly to a deaf institute for deaf culture experience & interaction with others like me.

Life took a turn with Grandma passing in Virginia & Grandpa was getting old and needed help around the home and the farm. My family made the decision to move to Virginia, mostly for better education and opportunities for my sister and I. Attending mainstream school continued; but this time, it was with a professional sign language interpreter. It was quite an adjustment, but it gave me much more freedom as an individual than I had on Kauai. From there on from 4th grade, I spent the rest of my schooling in public school mainstream style and graduated. Speech therapy continued also, but my speech skills deteriorated due to the summer travels from Kauai to Virginia because my family kept silencing me by being embarrassed that I was constantly using high-pitch voice for being excited. With constant reminders of being quieter & seeing the embarrassment in my family, I decided to stop using my voice pretty much almost altogether for 4 years. When I decided to practice on my voice again, I couldn’t remember how to do “n”, the difference between “p” and “b”, or pronounce the transition after “m”s to other letters in the word. I still have struggle with these letters today. It was an awakening and hurtful experience, my dad struggled to understand my pronunciations ever since then and many others.

Cochlear Implant was a great interest in middle school. I had the desire to hear, listen to music, improve on my speech, be more independent, and overcome the barriers of a deaf person in this world. I had the surgery during the summer after 7th grade. Water running was the first sound I heard, the sounds weren’t anything I expected or imagined to hear. The sounds are generally like gritty and pitches. It was difficult to adjust from hearing absolutely nothing for 12 years to all kinds of pitches, they were rather annoying noises. It was difficult to stay concentrated in school and it gave me headaches. The speech therapist I had after I had the surgery, she didn’t have any experience working with a newly implanted individual. Unfortunately, I didn’t really benefit much from it. I got accustomed to living without needing to hear to live with. So hearing became more of a distraction, than an useful accessory. The only noises I could recognize were a door closing, or a phone ringing, that is it. I could tell it’s a different noise from this versus the other; but I couldn’t distinguish letters, words, and everything else.

Attending mainstream school and socializing with generally hearing people majority of my daily life brought me to miss the socialization with deaf people. I applied & attended Rochester Institute of Technology at NTID college. During my studies there, there wasn’t any need for an interpreter unless taking a class at RIT instead of in NTID building for all professors were either deaf or knew ASL! That was a liberating experience!! This is definitely a great place for all people who enjoy sign language. It’s a whole another realm where there is no barriers. After completing my internship at a local medical examiner’s office in the Forensic Toxicology Department investigating cause of death for open police cases, I earned an Associate in Applied Science degree in Laboratory Science Technology with High Honors.

Then I had my beautiful daughter Vivianna, and continued to seek a career in laboratory setting. They only offered ~ $11 an hour with no benefits and 1.5 hours commute. That wasn’t going to work. So, I went back to school at Virginia Commonwealth University studying Forensic Science. When I sent in my application to study there, I kept applying to jobs I got accepted to do a quick 8 weeks course for phlebotomy certification. I went ahead & did that, within two weeks after starting the phlebotomy study, I heard from VCU that I got accepted there as well. I continued the program and obtained a phlebotomy position at Mary Washington Hospital. I worked at the hospital for 3.5 years- worked there most of my study at VCU up to the semester before I graduated from VCU. I commuted a lot during this time; traveling average 750 miles a week between work, school, and home trying to do it all raising two small girls. Regardless all the things on the plate, I managed to still do an independent study on low explosives pre- & post-blast for categorical identification, contributed to the University as an University Teaching Assistant for a year. Plus, finishing the schooling with a Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science with a concentration in Chemistry.

I had a few interviews in laboratory and forensic setting; I STILL couldn’t get employment that was fair or reasonable. Especially with all the degrees and experience I obtained over the years. I was defeated and at loss of what to do to secure our financial future…

Early on, visuals became my main focused reality, my other 4 senses gained more sensitivity as I relied on them more. With my artistic family, we always enjoyed all kinds of arts & crafts together growing up. I always enjoyed arts & finding home decor solutions without breaking the bank, plus repurposing anything & be very environmental conscious. People kept complimenting on my work I did & kept saying I should sell this and that stuff- skeptical myself… I decided to give it a shot at Etsy with my business called KT’s Home Decor & Designs. The Etsy business was founded in 2013 but was inactive due to my studies at VCU. I started investing more time into it after I graduated in 2015, it blossomed exponentially ever since. I made milestones in the first active year- 100 and 200 sales within 6 months. My business just hit 300 sales mark on St. Patrick’s day this year, and it took 5 months. My business just got its business license and is going to open in other selling platforms in Amazon, Ebay, private website, and more down the road. Here I am… couple years later, I am a quickly emerging solo entrepreneur!

Deaf, Hard of hearing, blind, all the disabilities aren't the disability of the mind or ability to succeed. Think - you can, and you will.

"Defy the odds. Defy the expectations." - Angus Moloney 2014

~ Katie


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