Hearing augmentation leads to heightened empathy

Conner Whitt displays his hearing device. Photo by Phil Custodio

Clarkston News Editor
Conner Whitt of Clarkston didn’t notice something was wrong with his hearing until he was 14 years old.
Whitt, now 19 years old, remembers sitting at the family computer with his headphones on. He would leave his left ear exposed, in case somebody needed to talk to him.
“One day, I noticed I wasn’t hearing clearly from that ear,” he said.
He received an MRI, which found he had a small brain tumor on his hearing nerve. The tumor was surgically removed in April 2016, but the procedure left him completely deaf in that ear.
He and his parents, Michael, a teacher, and Gemma, an oncology nurse at Troy Beaumont, looked into solutions at Michigan Ear Institute and other places, and decided to try out a Bone Anchored Hearing Device (BAHA) in 2017.
“They offered trying a crossover, something outside the ear, but I really leaned towards BAHA. It seemed more practical,” Conner said. “The thought of an electronic thing in my head, like a cyborg? I was like, sure, go for it.”
The BAHA device transmits sound from the left side through bone to his good ear.
“You hear through your skull,” he said.
He showed the device to fourth graders at Bailey Lake Elementary when he was working as an intern teacher through Clarkston High School.
“I brought it in for the kids. It was fun, they stood in line to hear through it,” he said. “It’s not too good for direction finding, but it helps a little.”
With the help of the BAHA hearing device, Conner can explore his passion for performing theater arts, including performing in “Hairspray” with the CHS Drama Club, as well as other high school productions and children’s theaters onstage and behind the scenes. He is currently a student at Oakland University majoring in Creative Writing: Screenwriting.
“The implant helps with performing – it helps to get everything down,” he said.
“I like the visual aspect of storytelling on stage and screen,” said Conner, who’s favorite movies include “Forrest Gump,” “La La Land,” and “Star Wars.” “I like the creativity of screenwriting, always being around talented people.”
Conner hopes to use his love for writing and performance to land a job as a writer on Saturday Night Live or the Tonight Show someday.
“I’m looking for internships, hopefully in New York or California. That would be really fun,” said Conner, a student at Oakland University studying screenwriting.
He volunteers at North Star Reach, a camp for children who are in and out of hospitals. His hearing loss inspired empathy for others and has solidified his desire to further his goal of helping people,
“When I was in the hospital, there were kids there who were way worse off than me,” he said. “It was a shock, a wakeup call. It breaks my heart.”
Conner is currently the secretary of Actively Moving Forward, a grief organization on Oakland University’s campus.
“I wanted to be a part of it, so I contacted them and they asked me to help get it started again,” he said.
Meetings include training on peer mentoring, discussions about the grief process, and ways to help, such as stress dogs.
He was recently announced as a winner of the annual Anders Tjellström Scholarship, which recognizes young leaders who uphold their ideals of leadership, humanity, and high academic achievement.
“I’m very excited about that – it’s really going to help with what we’re doing,” he said.
Eight out of 189 applicants were selected to receive either the Anders Tjellström Scholarship or the Cochlear Graeme Clark Scholarship this year. The awards are given annually to Cochlear device recipients to help them accomplish their goals through education; winners receive $2,000 per year for up to four years at an accredited college or university.
Applicants are selected for the scholarship program by a committee of hearing healthcare professionals, which considers the applicant’s leadership, academics, extracurricular activities, and community involvement.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.