For 18 years Zhi Xiong Zeng has struggled to hear. From classroom instruction to friends’ and family members’ conversations, everyday sounds have been muffled whispers in the Stratford High School junior’s ears.
But on Friday, the volume turned up on the nearly-silent clamor he’d grown used to. With help from Hearing Care of Summerville, the teen received a special gift of improved hearing. The last two-and-a-half years the Summerville Sertoma Club and Hearing Care have partnered to operate a hearing aid bank, collecting old, used and out-of-date hearing aids that are turned in for money, according to Matthew Orosz with Hearing Care.
As Dr. Hollie Bahen checked volume levels on the small digital technology—barely visible on Zeng’s head—he sat wide-eyed and amazed at the overwhelming audio reaching his ears. He had little to say, though sitting beside him, his sister’s fiance Hang Tang noticed an immediate change in Zeng.
“I can tell a difference,” Tang said. “He responds to things that he normally wouldn’t. ...I think this is helping him to be normal.”
In a matter of minutes Zeng felt the success of his new hearing aids and said he’s most looking forward to discerning basic conversation.
“I was so excited...because I can hear better,” Zeng said.
Since 2011 he’s lived in Hanahan with his sister AnYi Zeng and Tang. Zeng moved from Guangzhou, China, where his mom still lives. Though she initially traveled with Zeng to the Lowcountry, she later returned home.
Just 12 at the time he arrived locally, Zeng seemed shy and unresponsive to others, Tang said, and Tang thought the pre-teen’s little emotion was simply his personality; Tang said at the time he had no idea Zeng was suffering from a hearing impairment. But Zeng’s behavior wasn’t uncommon for his ailment.
“They become isolated and withdrawn socially,” Bahen said of individuals with hearing loss.
It was with help from the Berkeley County School District that officials discovered the student’s inability to hear properly, said district audiologist Heidi Clower.
“No one knew about his hearing loss,” she said. “He was falling between the cracks.”
Zeng also struggled in school because of the language barrier, and Clower applauded him for how much he’s improved the last six years.
“He has learned a tremendous amount of English. He’s a sweet guy,” Clower said.
Zeng is also enrolled in Stratford’s Deaf/Hard of Hearing Program. But he wasn’t always—school officials initially unaware of his moderate to severe hearing loss. They considered placing him into special education classes.
Clower said she and other district officials eventually helped acquire Zeng an older model of hearing aids—at least 10 years old—which eventually quit working, one ear at a time. For several months, Zeng could only operate one of the devices and for fear of losing them completely, said he chose to use neither when working as a dishwasher at Wasabi restaurant, where Tang serves as general manager.
While Summerville Sertoma Club and Hearing Care of Summerville have been partners for awhile—their goal to help local families of children with hearing loss—Zeng is the first recipient of free hearing aids.
“Everybody thinks of us as football,” said Kevin Betzold, Sertoma Club president.
But club officials seek to change that community mindset and have worked hard the last couple of years to encourage people to donate, using funds from the recycled hearing aids are to pay for recipients' treatment.
Bahen said Zeng’s innovative hearing aids cost about $5,000-$6,000 and without insurance—since he’s not yet an American citizen and is ineligible for Medicaid—affording a new working pair proved impossible for him until now.
Bahen told Zeng Friday that his new ears might initially overwhelm him, but that his brain would adjust in a matter of days, and he would return for a follow-up appointment in the near future. He can also control the devices’ volume—or receive phone calls on them—through an I-phone app. Tapping directly on the hearing aids also changes volume.
Bahen said she expects the up-to-date technology to dramatically improve Zeng’s ability to process speech. She’s also happy to be part of an initiative so impactful on another’s life, and likely won’t soon forget Friday’s memorable moment.
“I think everybody should hear,” Bahen said. “The smile he had is great.”
Zeng and his story will be presented during a break in Sertoma’s championship games Saturday at Gahagan Park.