Sound Decision

After years of tolerating a hearing disability, a ground-breaking surgery grants one Denverite the tuned-in life she never knew she always wanted.

November 2011

Imagine you’re 16, sitting in class, trying to follow the lesson on the board. Only you can’t hear what the teacher is saying, so you suffer through the semester in a fog, too self-conscious to speak up and call attention to the fact that you’re different.

Imagine your child is crying in his bedroom, burning up with a fever. Only you can’t hear him from your own bedroom, so he spends the night in misery.

Imagine you stop at an intersection in your car and reach down to adjust a tipped-over shopping bag. When you glance up, the light is green, so you step on the gas. What you don’t see is the fire truck barreling toward you—because you never heard the wail of the siren as the truck sped through the light.

Lori Frisher never had to imagine any of this, because this was the life the 38-year-old Denverite always assumed she had to live. There was no escaping it. This was her reality.

Frisher’s family first pinpointed her “invisible disability” when her development and speech stalled as a toddler. Her parents noticed little things, like the way she turned her father’s face toward her when he spoke. Though she could have attended a special school and communicated with sign language, Frisher relied almost exclusively on hearing aids. She and her family decided she should be mainstreamed, and she worked on overcoming the challenges: writing down homework assignments correctly, playing team sports, and picking up social cues at parties.

Even so, her struggles continued. “I became guarded because I didn’t want to have to explain myself,” Frisher says. “I didn’t want it to be a problem. I was afraid that people would have to slow down for me. I needed sensitivity from some people, but I didn’t allow it. Maybe I expected too much, thinking they could read my mind. It was really hard for me to say I was different.”

Frisher attended the University of Hartford, where she played Division I tennis as a walk-on—without ever hearing the sound of the racket hitting the ball. She later became the school’s first student-elected commencement speaker with a disability, and after graduation she used her learned creativity to work around her disability and launch an advertising, sales, and marketing career, including a stint with Disaboom, an online information resource for people with disabilities. “I always worked extra hard to hear,” Frisher says, “and, yes, missed out on things and got frustrated. But I did my best and compensated in other areas.”

Despite her professional success, Frisher was still socially insecure. She never put her hair up; instead she wore it down around her face to cover the hearing aids. Her voice sounded different; people who weren’t aware of her disability asked if she wore a retainer. And because having conversations in busy group settings like bars or restaurants was difficult, dating intimidated her. “I always felt ashamed,” she says, “like men wouldn’t accept me. I’ve spent my entire adult life feeling like this in social environments.”

If that weren’t enough, Frisher suffered two bouts of cancer. After fighting off stage-three melanoma in 1999, she relapsed in 2005. Complications from her high-dose treatment of the cancer drug Interferon reduced her hearing by another 30 percent, making her nearly deaf and qualifying her for a cochlear implant on one side, which requires external hardware to be worn above the ear. Together with the traditional hearing aid she already wore, the implant helped restore some of her auditory abilities, but Frisher’s hearing was still incomplete. Noises like a bell on a bicycle, a whisper, boiling water, or the sound of a kiss remained alien to her. “How many people take sound for granted?” Frisher says. “Or being able to speak, hear, and understand at the same time?”