By Jim Sullivan
---- — As an audiologist, Daniel Hendrix knows that the average person’s hearing in the United States is above average.
“Here in the U.S. when children are born, they are screened for hearing with equipment right in the hospital for hearing loss,” Hendrix said. “They are monitored yearly in the schools. That’s something that’s really watched over carefully here, but in India, because of lack of services, they are more interested in surviving, and (concern about) losing your hearing is pretty low.”
Once a year, Hendrix, 55, leaves the comfort of his Newburyport practice, Digital Hearing Healthcare, to visit hospitals and orphanages in northeast India, where he administers hearing tests and teaches the locals how to use the equipment that he brings.
“An ear infection here that could get a quick antibacterial agent to clear it up will just go on and on and destroy children’s hearing over there,” said Hendrix, who recently visited the tribal areas of Assam and Mizoram for the third time.
“The biggest challenge, technically, is the language,” Hendrix said. “Although they do speak English in the medical field, but when it comes to working with the general population, the language is a big one.”
It was Hendrix’s fascination with linguistics that first found him in these areas where each tribe has a language all their own.
“Northeast India has one of the most diverse linguistic populations in the world,” said Hendrix, who lives in Bradford. “It’s a place that has a high density of completely different languages. So, that’s what got me interested in the area, and when I found out that there was such a lack of services for the deaf population, I thought I could make a contribution by taking equipment in and training local medical professionals on how to do the work.”
Many Americans might picture scenes from the Academy Award-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire,” which was set in the slums of Mumbai. But Hendrix said the areas he works in are even more impoverished.
“It’s much lower than that,” Hendrix said. “The (movie’s) kids were in the city, where there is some money to be had from begging and stuff like that. In (northeast India), there is no tourism whatsoever, so there would be no begging or tourist money whatsoever.
“The first time we went, we landed in Calcutta and the airport was just infested with mosquitoes,” Hendrix said. “The inside of the building was just covered in mosquitoes. So my first impression was, ‘Why don’t the mosquitoes live outside the building?’ We got into the taxi and went downtown, and everything was closed. And there were people sleeping everywhere outside. The streets were just covered with people sleeping in the dirt and the rubble. It was like a nuclear war has happened, and we just hadn’t been informed in North America.”
While the insects and surroundings didn’t make the best first impression, Hendrix found the people he met to be very warm indeed.
“All the Indians are very friendly, so you’re engulfed in a whole family of some kind instantly,” Hendrix said. “You’re not alone by any means. They’re super-friendly, and any type of voluntary work from North America, they practically bow down and grab you and start feeding you. They are so happy to see you.”
Hendrix spent his first trip touring and cataloging what services were available for the deaf, which he said was easy since there were very little. The surveying continued in the second year, when Hendrix branched out to orphanages in Sikkim and Nepal.
“Deafness here is such an important thing, but in India, it’s low on the radar as far as importance,” Hendrix said. “So to get an awareness built up was pretty hard to do. Eyes always seem to have a little bit more importance to the general public. To be able to help blind people just rings a little bit louder than to be able to help deaf people. Everybody had bigger topics on their mind than the deaf.”
Armed with used hearing aids donated by his clients at Digital Hearing, Hendrix found that he was indeed making a difference as he returned on his third trip to find some trainees waiting for him.
“That was one of the most exciting parts, seeing that,” Hendrix said. “It’s pretty extensive training. For an audiologist to spend seven years to get that, and to spend one week with somebody and to somehow transmit all that, is a noble sort of cause. But they actually did pick it up. So, that was probably one of the biggest accomplishments.”
Hendrix hopes to return to the area come February or March, but even though he loves the work and the people, he looks forward to the day when his services won’t be required.
“The ultimate goal is to have independent audiologist services,” Hendrix said. “So I don’t need to be coming back every year.”