The sounds of sisterhood

Imagine a long dial tone. The buzzing of bees. These are the sounds sisters senior Rachel Wong and sophomore Nicole Wong heard when they first received their cochlear implants and Frequency Modulation (FM) units.

Born completely deaf, the sisters received cochlear implants before age five. A cochlear implant is an electronic device composed of an internal surgical implant that stimulates the auditory nerve and an external audio receiver. While a hearing aid makes sounds louder, cochlear implants aid in comprehending speech.

“I feel grateful for having this kind of implant and being able to be a little bit different from other kids. Being unique while trying to fit in with other people — I like that,” Rachel said. “I got to see what the deaf community is like compared to the hearing community.”

Their parents first discovered Rachel and Nicole’s hearing loss at ages three and one, respectively. Their mother noticed that her two children had not made any noises, cries or attempts at speech since birth. Doctors diagnosed them with severe profound hearing loss and recommended surgical implants. After receiving these implants, the two recall hearing only high-pitched sounds at first.

“I think it was a very wild experience, but emotion-wise, I think I was just very confused. You couldn’t really hear [normal noise] yet,” Rachel said. “[But], I was happy and excited.”

When tuned properly, Rachel and Nicole’s implants can significantly improve their hearing. To enhance the sound quality of the cochlear implants, Rachel and Nicole purchased FM units, which look like Bluetooth sets used for wireless phone calls. The FM units are analogous to microphones and the cochlear implants to speakers.

“We’re the only ones that can really relate to each other. We’re like, ‘Oh, can you hear this?’ ‘I can’t hear that. Do you know what he’s saying?’” Rachel said. “We have [a special kind of] communication.”

Before class, Rachel and Nicole hand their FM units to their teachers who speak into them. Similarly, at home or at the mall, they would hand their FM units to their parents or friends. At movie theaters, Nicole and Rachel request closed caption machines so the two could read the dialogue while watching the film.

“The only main concern, especially [for] my dad, regarding the hearing loss is safety.” Rachel said. “He’s worried that once we take it off, we won’t know if an intruder or a robber comes in the house, and we can’t really hear the dogs barking either.”

That’s not the only disadvantage of the FM unit. Maintenance, such as software updates and component replacements, can cost anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000. On top of that, the Wongs have to pay $2,000 to $3,000 in additional costs for their cochlear implants. However, the surgical implant itself rarely needs to be replaced and can last a lifetime. In addition, the implant itself is water resistant for 10 minutes, and it comes with a waterproof case for extended underwater use.

“Personally, I think the implants are really expensive,” Rachel said. “[Having the implant] makes me think that my parents want me and my sister to experience what [normal] people hear. I’m very lucky to be able to hear people’s voices and music.”

In the summer of 2018, Nicole and Rachel traveled to Hong Kong for vacation. On the flight, Nicole misplaced her FM unit and couldn’t find it. Luckily, the manufacturer warranty covered the cost of the replacement.

“I was absolutely terrified because it was so expensive. My dad even warned me about losing things because in the past. I always lose something when I travel,” Nicole said.

The previous generation of implants made it difficult for Nicole and Rachel to listen to music: they had to hold their phones up to their ears every time.  However, a recent update allowed the implant to wirelessly connect to iPhones or other electronics via Bluetooth.

“Listening to music with earbuds and headphones is really hard because I can’t really hear it,” Nicole said. “A good thing about [the new update] is that nobody can really tell that I’m listening to music, [and] it’s the same with phone calls. It gives me privacy.”

Rather than communicating through sign language, the two learned lipreading by observing speech patterns through regular communication and focused on learning English with the aid of their FM units. In fact, Nicole and Rachel can speak Chinese and Cantonese as well.

“Right now my Canto[nese] is not bad, but I can still communicate,” Nicole said. “I try to talk more in Chinese, and I’m learning [more]. Right now, it’s all [about] improving my communication skills with my parents, my peers and everyone [else]. That’s my main goal.”

When communicating with other people, Nicole and Rachel struggle with understanding sarcasm and different tones that are meant to imply something else. To this day, the sisters still try to hone their listening skills through experience.

“We take things [people say] seriously. We don’t think ahead, so when a person says a statement, we just hear that same statement and that’s it. I don’t know how to really explain it,” Nicole said.

When their mom passed away in 2012, Rachel had to not only learn but teach Nicole how to prepare meals, maintain the house, and take care of their pets.

“Rachel [has] acted like a mother toward me. We weren’t like sisters. It was more like a mother-daughter bond and because of that I didn’t really confide in her with my personal matters,” Nicole said.

Because of financial constraints, Rachel and Nicole’s father had to work extra shifts as a logistics manager at a warehouse. As a result, Nicole and Rachel have to schedule their own doctor’s appointments and help their dad place warehouse orders from Home Depot or Lowe’s over the phone.

“We [gained] leadership. We learned how to take on this kind of stuff without hesitating or panicking, wondering, ‘Oh, what should I do? What should I do?’ I feel like learning how to be independent from a very young age is like [getting] ready to take on the real world,” Rachel said.  

Yet, despite their busy lives, the two participate in extracurriculars, such as kung fu and lion dancing, together.

“After some time in high school, with all the crazy things going on, we’ve been trying to talk to each other more, like a sister-to-sister kind of thing. [I’m] trying to [understand] all the feelings she’s been hiding,” Rachel said.

Rachel hopes to become a clinical psychologist, and Nicole hopes to get a career in the sports medicine field. So far, they have not faced any prejudice from their peers or friends.

“The best part of having cochlear implants or being deaf is just being able to build those teamwork and communication skills. We don’t feel as shy to introduce ourselves as unique and not being able to hear as well, because my friends and classmates [are okay with it],” Rachel said.

Nicole and Rachel look to inform other people about cochlear implants and the deaf community by answering any questions that the hearing community has. They hope people are considerate of their hearing issue by speaking clearly and enunciating words.

“Not a lot of people today know about these kinds of things, but I really think that people should be more aware and know some knowledge about us, the deaf community and how we have these hearing devices that could help us hear,” Rachel said.


By Flora Lei and Phillip Leung, Arts editor and Print editor-in-chief
Photo by Erin Tan