My Friend Betty, Extraordinary Person with Hearing Loss

Gael Hannan
June 18, 2013

Betty with dog

Next week I’m going to Portland for  the annual Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) Convention, and I can’t wait.  Forgive me for being corny, but my absolute favorite part of the event is chatting with amazing people, who come from everywhere, with heart-rending and hilarious stories to share and a willingness to listen to yours.

Betty Coombs is one of those people.  Betty once wrote Oprah Winfrey to suggest me as a guest for her show. I never got the call from Oprah, but  it’s time for me to write about Betty.

I met her at my first Convention, in 2002 in Seattle, where I was the Keynote Speaker. Shortly after I finished my performance, an older woman came at me, gripping a cane in one hand and a dog leash (attached to a dog) in the other. She pounded her cane and pronounced, “My name is Betty Coombs and I want to know how you know so much about me? As you talked, I said to myself, ‘Betty Coombs, that’s your life!”  Then she gave me the widest, most devilish grin I’ve ever seen.

How could I not fall in love with her?

Recently, I received this letter from Betty:

Dear Friends,

I am 94 years old and before I leave on my last Adventure I would like to share a discovery I have made.

Eleven years ago I got a Cochlear Implant.  Most wonderful operation I had ever had.  This opened up a whole new world for me.

What I didn’t know was how to make the right decision about which ear should be implanted. I was very healthy, no signs of heart problems, so I chose my left ear for the operation. Ten years later I fell, breaking three bones in my left shoulder. Finding my processor in the bedclothes was one big chore for the nurses.  I now have a pacemaker, left side. Oxygen on 24/7. Everything hangs on my left ear. If I had it to do over I would choose my right ear but it took me 7 trips to the hospital to make that decision [realization].

We get too soon oldt and too late schmart.

Betty Coombs


Betty said I could write about her if I emailed her the questions and she would ‘finger-peck the answers’. So, here’s Betty in her own words.


Q:   Where were you born and where did you grow up?

A:   Brooklyn, New York, in 1919.


Q:   What was your career?

A:   Career? Moi?  Ha! Well, I graduated from Montclair (New Jersey)High School in 1947. Oh, hang on…my friend Joan Ireland just told me it was 1937 I graduated!

It was the middle of the Depression.  My Mother, Grandmother and Sister were nurses so I decided to go to nursing school. I was very hard of hearing since birth, probably from German measles, and while in nursing school I relied entirely on lip reading.

My parents were divorced, and my Mom, Grandma, sisters and I lived day to day on the rocking edge of financial disaster.  The nursing school let me pay one hundred dollars for the training and then six months later told me I could not continue my training because of my hearing loss!

So, I made wigs for mannequins for a while. Everyone there was lesbian or gay, and I was never sure of which restroom to use. Wonderful talented people and all with great ability to laugh at everything, but the season for wig making is only about 5 or 6 months long and I made about $200. Then I was an engineering aide for airplane manufacturers, because I learned drafting from a correspondence school.

After my first husband died from a heart attack after 7 years of marriage, I got married again to the Love of my Life. Dick lived for 27 years and left me two grown up kids. Now I have five grandkids and six great -grandkids.


Q: How did you adapt to your hearing loss?

A:   Adapt? I didn’t know I was deaf!  I just thought everyone else heard what I heard. In Grade 7, a speech therapist, who was trying to cure my lisp, discovered that I couldn’t hear. My lip reading ability amazed her.


Q:   How did you get involved in HLAA (formerly SHHH)?

A:   My oldest sister Dottie lived across the street from a hard of hearing lady who was a member of SHHH. I joined and then fell madly in love with Rocky. (Note: Rocky Stone was the founder of Self Help for Hard of Hearing People.)

The nearest SHHH Chapter was more than one hundred miles away so I started a new one in Banning.  It’s still doing well 26 years later with meetings in Beaumont, CA. I am still listed as the founder!


Q:   You had a beautiful hearing dog when I first met you in 2002.

A:   Jazz was a poodle/shih tzu mix – wonderful, smart and beautiful. Then I had Mohawk, a Terrier mix who was smart, loving and my shadow until he died at 17 years of age. I am no longer able to take care of a dog but sure wish I could.


Q:   Any anecdotes you want to share?
A:   Probably, but my energy is flagging.


According to Joan Kleinrock of HLAA, Betty has the unique and enviable talent of seeing the humor in everything, including herself. Beth Wilson, a radar engineer and former Executive Director of SHHH, shares this story:

When I was in Shemya, Alaska working on a radar system, I wrote frequent emails describing my adventures on this remote island. The day we got all systems working and I was allowed to ‘radiate’  was a huge milestone and I wrote about it.  I got email congratulations from everyone except Betty.  She wrote that she had no idea what I was doing, but she pulled the shades down on her windows just in case! 

Betty’s cochlear implant at age 83 was life-changing and in a 2008 NBC News interview she said, “If I had realized how wonderful it would be, I would have had champagne at my hookup!” She told Douglas Beck that people’s voices immediately sounded normal, but everything else was too noisy. “Train whistles sounded like cows in heat!” But she quickly adapted, and when asked about the advantage of using a CI rather than a hearing aid, she said, “Having it behind my ear instead of in my bra was great! Free at last!”

And that, my friends, is the wonderful Betty Coombs, an extraordinary person with hearing loss. She won’t be at HLAA this year, but I bet I’ll hear some new ‘Betty’ stories while I’m there.

  1. What a terrific interview. I’ve had older folks tell me they are too old to get a CI. I always argue “quality” of life.

  2. What wonderful memories this story brings! That’s the very special part of SHHH/HLAA that people will never understand if they never attend the HLAA conventions. I’ve missed only 3 of them since 1984, and have met the most remarkable people in the process of attending. Betty is one of them, and there are many, many others. It’s hard to recall that I was one of the youngsters back in 1984 at that first convention in Chicago. I’m so glad I had the courage to go! Looking forward to Portland next week. I move a bit slower than I did when I was 40, but I’m still game to get up and go …to HLAA convention 2013. I look forward to seeing many dear friends from ‘like forever’…and meeting new friends ‘from now’! And I miss those who can no longer join us. Safe travels everyone. See you in Portland!

    1. Sure wish I was joining you Julie! Indeed, SHHH/HLAA friendships are unique and very special. I have also made many special friends over the years at the conventions! I will be there in spirit!

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