“And right here, in this cabinet, you see a lot of lives being changed.”
Pia stopped me in my tracks with these words as she led us on a tour of the manufacturing facility. I wish I could show you a picture of the glass cabinet filled with finished cochlear implants, the internal devices waiting for their final inspection before being shipped off to a different destination, each destined to a specific recipient. I can’t, of course, because this part of the tour was so top secret no photographs were allowed. Instead I will tell you that the cabinet was small, maybe two and a half feet by three feet, with just three or four shelves. It was accessed inside the manufacturing facility, but it extended out on the other side of the glass walls, the side where we stood, watching the people who were making the devices that were going to change lives.
When I was invited to go to Innsbruck, Austria for the first ever Med-el Meetup I couldn’t stop pinching myself. Traveling to Europe alone would have been enough to make me weep tears of gratitude, but to be invited to see the place where my son’s cochlear implants are made, to be able to meet the people who had a hand in making them- that was just too much altogether.
Innsbruck itself doesn’t disappoint. It is beautiful and picturesque, a bustling city in the middle of the mountains. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the mountains, the buildings, the people. And going to the headquarters of Med-el, the cochlear implant company, was amazing. It was sleek and beautiful and buzzing with innovation and genius- everything you’d want from a place inventing and creating solutions to the problems hearing loss creates for people who long to connect to the world around them. We spent time learning about the technology and in the training lab. We had a chance to talk to the people in marketing and research and development. We were recorded sharing a few things about ourselves and our journeys in the world of hearing loss. There were treats and coffee breaks and lots of time getting to know the eighteen other people from around the world all bound by one commonality: hearing loss.
At one point we even met Ingeborg Hochmair, the inventor of the multi-channel cochlear implant and also CEO of Med-el, the company that makes Liam’s implant. This is now my greatest celebrity interaction. I gasped when I saw her and awkwardly tried to take her picture without her knowing. I stood next to her in the group photo, beaming from ear to ear and I tried not to throw my arms around her and sob with gratitude. When I finally got a chance to talk with her I showed her a video of Liam. We’d recorded it ahead of time in case I got a chance to share it with some of the manufacturing team. I didn’t dare dream I’d get to present it to the inventor herself. In it Liam simply says, “My name is Liam Powell and I am 8 years old. I can hear really well. Thank you for making my cochlear implants. They are really awesome. I think you did a good job.” And then I said thank you. Thank you for changing not just Liam’s life, but the lives of our whole family. Because of this woman my son doesn’t have to choose between his family in the hearing world or the Deaf community. He can connect with both. Because of this woman Liam hears every word in our home, every “I love you,” “good morning,” and “good night” whether they’re spoken to him or someone else. Because of her his hearing loss is a very surmountable obstacle.
I’ll never get over getting to say thank you to her in person and with Liam’s video. But truthfully, there was another thank you I got to say that makes me even more emotional.
During one of our coffee breaks members of the manufacturing team came to greet us. Some of them spoke English, but most did not. These are the people who make the devices by hand. It’s tedious, careful work, in an environment who’s standards for cleanliness and quality are unlike anything I’ve seen. If a pen falls on the ground it cannot be used. They work for hours at a time, unable to even scratch their noses or adjust their eye glasses. They look through microscopes in order to see the tiny wires and details of what they are putting together. And if they are not careful, if there are mistakes, devices don’t work. They are the ones who put amazing ideas into actual, usable technology. Inventors invent, R&D develops, but without the careful work of that team, no one hears.
Through the use of translators I got to tearfully thank just a few of the people who made Liam’s implant. I showed them the video Liam and I had made for them and I thanked them for being careful. It is not lost on me that the world as Liam knows it could change in an instant if his devices stop working. Or that he’d never get to the point he’s at today, listening and speaking with such ease, if the device in his head wasn’t of the highest quality. And so it was not lost on me that Liam’s hearing is forever indebted not just to the woman who invented his cochlear implant device, but also to the people who came to work each day over the 3-5 week period it takes to manufacture a device and carefully focused on their work. The people whose steady hands put minuscule pieces into place and attention to detail ensured quality.
In a world where most of us work at jobs where we are multi-tasking, surfing the internet with one eye and the other on the task at hand, or thinking about that frustrating conversation with our mom while we send a few emails, I am so very thankful for the people who leave their phones in cubbies and go through a rigorous sterilization process before setting foot in their “office.” Who use all their focus and energy to do tedious, intricate work so that Liam and thousands like him can connect to the world around them. Who know that a moment of carelessness can mean the difference between hearing “I love you” and not hearing at all.
I know I wasn’t alone in profound gratitude for the members of this team. All 18 of us who have benefited from their careful work were tearful during that break that I think was supposed to be a meet and greet but ended up being a profound time of sharing thanks. Every person felt the weight of gratitude for those very ordinary hands that held our own or our loved one’s hearing. And when we got the chance to express it, you better believe we did.