"Ozzy's helping me to not just survive, but to live & smile again."

Posted by Sarah O'Brien

Helen Atherton's efforts to hide her hearing loss led to her feeling isolated and at times even afraid to leave the house. Now with hearing dog Ozzy by her side, she's learning to accept her deafness and enjoy life once again.  

Read Helen's story below:

Helen Atherton and hearing dog Ozzy

I had completely normal hearing until I was 15, but then contracted a virus which caused it to slowly deteriorate over the following 18 months. I became the first in the north east to have a cochlear implant, but unfortunately its benefits were extremely limited.

“I never really accepted or came to terms with being deaf. People I knew and who were around me when I started to lose my hearing, struggled. They didn’t like me to mention or talk about my deafness, which of course I wanted to and needed to, and as I lost my hearing all my friends walked away too.

In the end, I simply stopped telling people I couldn’t hear, and I went to great lengths to hide my deafness. I felt it was something I should be ashamed of - that it was almost my failing - and to a degree I did it very well.

As the years went on though and I had my children, the impact of hiding my deafness caught up on me. The feeling of loneliness and isolation crept up on me more and more and the feelings of loss and despondency grew. No matter how hard I tried, I never felt I fitted in either the deaf or hearing world.

We moved from Cumbria to Warrington for my husband’s job and he was often working away. It was a shock quite how hard it was as I knew no-one and didn’t know the area at all. I really struggled to get to grips with lipreading the local accents and I could barely understand anyone at all. I found it near impossible to make friends or to get to know anyone and I was almost afraid to go out. I hoped no one would speak to me as I wouldn’t understand them.

One of the lowest points was when a teacher at my children’s new school gave some instructions to do with homework. Because I was afraid to tell anyone I couldn’t hear, I left with no idea. I walked home in tears and desperation and I spent all day thinking about it, only managing to put myself together enough for picking my children up from school.

Misunderstandings were happening often and I realised my efforts ‘to be hearing’, were just not working and my confidence just continued to slide away. In my husband’s words, ‘the light in my eyes had gone out'.

I reached a point where I knew I had a choice to stay as I was, and eventually I think I would have just given up on life entirely, or look for Plan B, and for me a hearing dog appeared my greatest chance.

I had seen about Hearing Dogs a number of times on TV, so I had known about the charity for a while. I looked on the website and began the application process, and I was overjoyed when my application was accepted. I finally had hope.

When I got an email to say that a hearing dog had been found as a potential match with Ozzy’s picture, I was thrilled - I don’t think I’d felt such happiness in years and I had a big smile all that day.

I was very excited, but rather nervous to meet Ozzy, and I loved him at first sight. When he came for a sleepover at our house, we went into a supermarket together with Ozzy’s trainer. It was lovely and I felt I was visible for the first time in years. I remember coming out with a big smile and Ozzy’s trainer Jo having a big smile too, and saying we were a match.

Ozzy has given me the courage and almost permission to start accepting that actually I cannot hear, and it’s OK that I don’t, which for me is a very big thing. He is also helping me learn who Helen is and to learn to be me as a deaf person. Whilst there is a long way for me to go, Ozzy is helping me to not just survive, but learn to live and smile again.

Just over a year after getting Ozzy, I developed epilepsy. My frequent seizures often leave me confused, affect my perception and quite often if I’m out I have no idea how to get home or even where home is. Ozzy, aside of all the other things he does for me, has developed the ability to recognise when I am having seizures and afterwards he will lead me home.

On one occasion, Ozzy was settled as normal on the floor asleep and just before I started to fit, he suddenly got up and slowly moved from his blanket towards the bed. As I started to fit he carefully moved close to the bed. As the fit eased, he placed his head in such a way it touched my hand and stayed there, so the first thing I felt as I came too was his soft fur to comfort and reassure.

Helen Atherton and hearing dog Ozzy

“For me Ozzy’s job and purpose goes way beyond listening to sounds for me and alerting me to them. He is there at the very start of a new and long journey, which I never even knew I needed to go on, and I still have a long way to go.

Applying for a hearing dog was probably one of the bravest and best things I have ever done. I wouldn’t be without Ozzy at all.

He does so much for me, both what he has been trained to do, and what he has taught himself to do. He is very much part of our family, and loved to pieces not just by me but by everyone. He’s loveable, quirky, perceptive, attentive, loyal, and at times rather cheeky. 

Whilst a hearing dog has an important role alerting a person to sounds, they do far more than that - they help a person to live again and give them courage to do things they never thought possible. Any donation you make has the potential to not just improve and change a life, but can also give a deaf person like me their life back.”

Did you know that over half of all hearing dogs are funded thanks to gifts in Wills?

These three wonderful supporters have decided to leave a gift in their Will to help a deaf person like Helen, and you could too.

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About the author

blog hearing dogs

Hi everyone! I'm Sarah, digital content officer for Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. I manage the Charity's social media, blog and e-newsletter and help with promoting digital campaigns. I'm obsessed with dogs, tea and reading (in that order). 

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