Rhonda Lazaroff heard a loud voice for the first time in years.
She looked up with surprise.
“OK,” the audiologist asked her, “does that sound pretty loud?”
Lazaroff nodded and began to cry. It was so joyously loud.
Later that day, Jillian Hartman, her professor in the College of Education at Grand Canyon University, had a similar reaction when she watched the YouTube video of Lazaroff’s cochlear implant activation on Aug. 18.
“I was in tears. What a moment!” said Hartman, who was one of the first to be sent the video link because she had helped Lazaroff adapt her first college course over the summer.
“She gave me a chance,” Lazaroff said of Hartman. “And I wanted to share that joy with her.”
The Steubenville, Ohio, woman has come a long way – from a mom who was profoundly deaf and caring for five boys with challenges to a hearing online college student.
Lazaroff began losing hearing when her son, Anthony, was 2. In May, the 19-year-old graduated from high school, against all odds. He was diagnosed with autism, and Lazaroff said doctors told her Anthony needed to go to a “special school.”
“I would not have it,” Lazaroff said.
She quit her career as a flight paramedic to focus on Anthony and older son Tyler, who was then 4, and has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
“I quit something I love for something I love more – my son,” Lazaroff said.
She didn’t hear Anthony’s voice for two years. Even as he began to produce sounds, her own hearing waned.
“I honestly was scared that one day I would wake up and not be able to hear my kids at all,” she said.
Her other children are Matthew and Christopher, who has hearing loss and wears aids in both ears, and Pierson, who has developmental delays after a premature birth 11 years ago.
Lazaroff didn’t give up on her children. She put Anthony in public school, where he began to thrive. She provided a voice of reason but also confidence, telling Christopher that his dream of being in the fifth grade band would be difficult with his hearing loss.
“This beautiful boy did it anyway. He went after what he wanted, and I wasn’t going to stand in his way,” she said. “He plays trombone!”
From Pierson, she learned hope. Medical issues led her to scheduling a hysterectomy, where doctors learned she was pregnant. There were complications, she said, but the 11-year-old is today doing well.
In May, she and husband Ed watched Anthony walk across the stage as a graduate after years of therapy and challenges. “Him making that walk, his whole life flashed in my mind. This wasn’t supposed to happen, and he did it,” she said. “He proved them wrong.”
Lazaroff was inspired that day to renew her own dreams.
After trying hearing aids, she heard of the wonders of a cochlear implant, a surgically placed electronic device that can help provide a sense of sound with a speech processor, transmitter and electrodes that collect impulses and send them to different regions of the auditory nerve.
She wanted one and something else, too – to go back to college.
“Those boys have taught me more about life than I could ever imagined,” she said of the hope, patience and strength she saw in them.
“The day my son with autism walked across the stage at his high school graduation, I was absolutely positive I got my calling. The very next week I applied at GCU.”
She wants to become an early childhood special education teacher.
And was scared to death.
But the first day of class in June, she told Hartman about her hearing loss and her impending surgery for an implant. Hartman immediately began making adaptions.
“I very quickly uploaded all my (instructional) Loom videos to YouTube and was able to activate captions,” said Hartman. “She will be positively impacting my students for years to come.”
And Lazaroff came up with her own adaptions, using her mobile phone to record her classmates speaking during class and using Google to transcribe it.
“She also understood I was scared to do videos, out of fear I couldn’t hear myself or if I was talking too loud,” Lazaroff said. “She was so understanding, and she gave me a chance.”
Hartman said Lazaroff was consistent in asking questions and seeking tips and connected with the online community by sharing her life story in a personal writing example.
“I didn’t expect to hear from her again,” Hartman said of the August day when she got a surprise message with a link to Lazaroff's video.
“I love that she allowed us to be connected with her personal life and growth and success. Rhonda’s story and caring personality will benefit her future students tremendously.”
That same day, at age 47, a new life started for Lazaroff.
“Within 24 hours I was hearing sounds I hadn’t heard in years. I could hear crickets! A lot of things I didn’t know what I was hearing, such as the turn signal on my van,” she said. “I have never heard my microwave beeping. I seriously can hear my dog’s nails hitting the floor.
“I am in awe of everything and honestly wonder if this is how a baby hears at first.”
She is learning speech again because she said her brain literally forgot how words sound. “I am starting all over again, not with school but hearing.”
“I seriously heard sausage frying!” said Lazaroff, whose audiologist told her by the end of August that she already had 50% recognition of words. “I am also starting to hear Professor (Thomas) Dyer on video.”
Dyer leads her second GCU course, and her third begins at the end of September.
“I decided to be a special education teacher because I believe in my heart that after five boys with special needs, to some degree this is what I was meant to do,” she said. “I want to give back what was given to me. I want to help so many little ones reach their fullest potential.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.