Community Heroes: Deaf audiologist Michelle Hu uses her experiences to help others navigate hearing loss
Michelle Hu is deaf, but the pediatric audiologist strives to make sure her message comes through loud and clear. Through her work with patients and her Instagram account and website, she uses her deafness to help others navigate hearing loss.
Hu, a La Jolla resident since 2009, was born with mild to moderate hearing loss that wasn’t discovered until she was 3 or 4. The condition worsened bit by bit, she said.
“I did pretty well with hearing aids,” she said, though she was a “textbook candidate” for cochlear implants, small devices surgically embedded at each ear to help patients hear.
Her parents balked at the implants, however. “They wanted [the technology] to improve,” Hu said.
She was getting good grades without the implants, but “they didn’t know how hard I was working,” she said, likening her efforts to a duck appearing to float while it paddles furiously underwater.
Hu’s hearing loss eventually led her to study audiology — diagnosis and treatment of hearing loss and balance disorders — in her senior year of college, at the encouragement of her mother. “She said, ‘You might be a good person to be an audiologist, to understand what your patients are going through, what it’s like,’” Hu said.
Hu earned a doctorate in audiology and works as a pediatric audiologist for Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego.
She is deaf now and cannot hear without the cochlear implants she received in her late 20s — the first during audiology school and the second once she was at Rady.
Hu said audiology is “perfect for me because I feel like my entire life is optimized for my patients. … There aren’t that many audiologists with hearing loss.”
She said her deafness allows her to explain to her patients’ parents what their children are experiencing or what their life may be like as they grow.
Hu specializes in cochlear implants, “especially with teenagers,” she said.
San Diego resident Erin Brant said Hu is the audiologist for her two eldest sons and “has been an amazing resource” for the family.
“Because [Hu] has implants herself,” Brant said, “it was awesome to have someone with life experience, not just medical experience.”
Hu “is a lifesaver and so generous with her time,” Brant said.
Rosabel Agbayani, a Rancho Peñasquitos resident whose deaf son also is a patient of Hu’s, said Hu is “doing something great with her life. Being an audiologist and mother … empowers me to know my child has a future.”
Hu is “so down to earth,” Agbayani said. “She has helped me personally and professionally, talking about ways we can make a difference for parents raising their hard-of-hearing and deaf children.”
While on maternity leave for her second child toward the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hu started an Instagram account (@mama.hu.hears) to answer questions from patients who “were growing up and having kids of their own,” she said.
Among other questions, the adult patients wondered about hearing their children at night and communicating with pediatricians.
“It didn’t dawn on me that that was something different” for them, Hu said, “because that’s what I do. You just MacGyver your own way through your life. Nobody prepares you for that, especially motherhood. … It occurred to me I could share with others so they can do the same.”
Hu, who now has three children, also began an online course (available at mamahuhears.com) during the summer for parents of children who are deaf or hard of hearing. “Most of the time, children who have hearing loss are born to hearing parents,” she said. “The parents have no idea what to do, where to go, what kind of village of support to build around them.”
Hu’s course includes information about navigating audiology appointments, specialists to seek, co-parenting tips and other advice.
She said the course also is becoming popular with audiology students and hearing professionals. “It was just a labor of love,” she said, “but I think it’ll be a really helpful tool.”
Agbayani said Hu’s program is “epic.” Learning that her child is deaf led to a “grieving process, trying to navigate the system,” Agbayani said. “To have a road map written by an audiologist and deaf person herself … it’s amazing.”
The La Jolla Light’s Community Heroes series for the holiday period highlights people who aren’t often in the news but make a difference in the lives of others. If you know such a person, email Editor Rob Vardon at email@example.com. Please limit suggestions to people who live or work in La Jolla or otherwise have strong ties to the community. ◆
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