In honor of International Cochlear Implant Day on February 25 (#CelebrateCochlear), Elena LaQuatra, winner of Miss Pennsylvania USA 2016, shares her story on her life growing up Cochlear and how she is succeeding today.

By: Elena LaQuatra, Guest Blogger

“Silence is golden” is an accepted adage; however, when silence is the only option, it becomes difficult to agree with the overused cliché.

While celebrating my fourth birthday on the freezing afternoon of January 27, 1996, no one would have presumed bacteria were exponentially multiplying inside my body, preparing to destroy my existence. In a time span of five days, I transformed from a wide-eyed, curly-haired, high-spirited little girl to a convulsing, vomiting, sickly hospital patient fighting for my life. Despite a spiking 105.2 degree fever, pain throughout my body, and inability to move my neck or head, doctors dismissed my parents’ concern twice before officially diagnosing me with a fatal illness.

Courtesy of Elena LaQuatra
Courtesy of Elena LaQuatra

Bacterial meningitis had permeated my weak body, damaging my neurological system and leaving my family numb. I was wrenched from my mom’s arms screaming and placed back in them with gauze wrapped around my head and tears running down my face, asking, “Why did you let them to this to me, Mommy?” I couldn’t hear her response. The meningitis had taken 100 percent of my hearing and balance.

After spending 16 exhausting days in the hospital, I returned to my house, but it was the furthest thing from home. I spent 10 months crying because my fine and major motor skills had diminished. I was forced to crawl on all fours, screaming because I felt like nobody was listening and throwing fits because I was stuck behind a soundproof wall, alienated from the world.

Having never even met a deaf person before, my parents struggled to re-pave the path to my future and bring normalcy to my life. Every day, I would ask my mom to turn the TV or radio up and she had no choice but to tell me, “it’s broken.” Every time I responded by asking her, “Is your voice broken too?” all she could do was fight back her tears and nod.

My parents, following my doctors’ suggestions, chose to try cochlear implant technology, and although the first operation in my right ear failed due to complications from the meningitis, the second try in my left ear proved successful. They also enrolled me at The DePaul School for Hearing and Speech, an oral deaf school that focuses on teaching profoundly deaf children to speak and mainstreaming their students into a public school system as quickly as possible.

I am a firm believer that whatever the mind can conceive, it can achieve. I worked as hard as I could to regain my speech and balance. The day I did cartwheels down the hospital hall to greet the neurologist was the day my family knew I had beaten all odds. Stunned by the fact that I was flipping myself upside down, the doctor reported to my parents that according to my failing results on physiological tests of my vestibular system, I should have technically needed a walker for the rest of my life. That same week, my audiologist told my parents that I was responding to my hearing tests more accurately than a person with 100 percent of their authentic hearing would.

Eleven trips to the hospital, seven times under bubblegum-flavored anesthesia (although I always specifically asked for coffee-flavored), four years of speech therapy, two years of physical therapy, five cochlear implant upgrades, and 20 years later, I surprisingly view my deafness as a blessing.

Kenneth Lysons, author of an informational book on deafness, stated, “When correctly encountered, a disability becomes a stimulus that impels toward a higher achievement.”

Courtesy of Elena LaQuatra
Courtesy of Elena LaQuatra

My deafness didn’t stop me from dancing for 16 years, being cast in over two dozen professional plays and musical productions, competing in The Shakespeare Monologue Contest for The Pittsburgh Public Theater for 10 years, or becoming a member of the nationally renowned Mt. Lebanon Percussion Ensemble in high school. It didn’t stop me from competing in pageants and winning the prestigious titles of Miss Pennsylvania’s Outstanding Teen 2007, Miss Pennsylvania Teen USA 2010, and currently Miss Pennsylvania USA where I’ll soon be competing for Miss USA. It definitely didn’t stop be from obtaining my Bachelor of Arts degree in Broadcast Communications or landing my first “real” job as a Digital Video Reporter for Hearst affiliate WTAE-TV in my hometown of Pittsburgh. The cochlear implant has enabled me to achieve any goal I could even dream up in my very ambitious brain.

Aside from personal dreams that I’ve been setting and striving to reach since I was young, my disability (can I really even call it that anymore?) and my success with the cochlear implant have ingrained the deepest passion for helping others in me. Anything I can do to inspire, to motivate, to encourage, to lend a helping hand, to put a smile on someone’s face…I will do. To me, there is no greater satisfaction then being able to help another human – in whatever capacity they might need help.

For the future, I’m excited to upgrade to the Nucleus® 6 Sound Processor. Once that happens, I’ll hopefully go on in my pageant career to win Miss USA (maybe even Miss Universe!), become the first deaf anchor on a national station, and who knows, maybe there’s even a career in opera in my future! Probably not, but at least I know it’s possible with the miraculous technology that is the cochlear implant.

Learn more about Elena here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTWdXvvTFPU

See Elena’s Miss Pennsylvania USA crowning here (1:50): www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5OUcVe7wRk

Looking for more information about hearing implant solutions? Visit www.cochlear.com/us.

Renee Oehlerking
Renee Oehlerking is the Public Relations Manager at Cochlear Americas where she is responsible for the region’s public relations and consumer marketing social media. Renee enjoys uncovering, telling and showcasing the inspiring stories of hearing implant recipients. As a recent transplant to Denver, Colorado, Renee enjoys exploring all that the state has to offer outdoors.