Reina Rodríguez is the only audiologist working with newborn babies at the San Juan de Dios Hospital in San José. On a typical day, Rodríguez, 25, tests an average of 25 infants for signs of hearing loss. With portable equipment and a good deal of patience, she checks every baby born in the last 24 hours.
In Rodríguez’s line of work, patience is indispensible. The public hospital wouldn’t have the means to detect infant hearing loss if it hadn’t been for her tenacity. Before she became a full-time staffer, Rodríguez worked for two years without pay to demonstrate the hospital’s need for better infant testing.
Now she is creating a fully operational program to detect hearing loss early, something that could significantly help the children under her care.
“Sometimes it is difficult for parents to detect hearing loss in their newborn babies. With our early screening, we can detect the problems and refer children to specialized physicians for further treatment,” Rodríguez said.
Parents say they are glad Rodríguez started the program. “I had no idea they were running these tests on newborns, and it took me by surprise when they tested my son. But I think it’s important so that babies can receive proper treatment if they need it,” said Francini Loaiza, who gave birth to a healthy son last month.
The Social Protection Council also got onboard by donating expensive testing equipment. Rodríguez lobbied for the donation and filled out plenty of paperwork to make sure it happened.
The hospital received its most recent equipment last month: a $10,000 machine that detects hearing loss in a child’s middle ear section.
According to Rodríguez, four of every 1,000 children born in Costa Rica develop hearing loss, or about two each month at San Juan de Dios Hospital. Before the new testing procedures, most children weren’t diagnosed until they were 2.
“Hearing plays a vital role in a child’s development,” Rodríguez said. “It is important for learning, playing and developing language skills.”
When detection of a child’s hearing loss is delayed, it can lead to misdiagnosis as the child develops, she said. “It is common to see children misdiagnosed as mentally disabled, but in many cases learning disabilities have nothing to do with mental capabilities, but rather with hearing problems.”
Rodríguez’s program focuses on early detection, diagnosis, intervention and education. While making her rounds, she offers mothers helpful tips on cleaning babies’ ears and on stimulating development through sound.
When Marjorie Jiménez’s daughter was born on Nov. 21, Jiménez was nervous about the testing procedure. Eight years ago, her son was born with severe hearing loss, but wasn’t diagnosed until he was nearly 2.
“Luckily my [daughter] is healthy and has no problems hearing,” Jiménez said. “But I regret not having the [same] opportunity when my older son was born. It was difficult to get him diagnosed. Now he has a cochlear implant that helps him get a normal education, but it has been a long process.”
Rodríguez’s project is still at an early stage, and it requires more equipment. Still, with the recent donation, she can properly diagnose infants and refer them to the National Children’s Hospital, where specialized care is available.
At her own hospital, Rodríguez plans to eventually open a new unit to treat infant and child hearing loss with hearing aids, cochlear transplants and rehabilitation.
“When hearing loss is detected early in life and children are given the appropriate devices, they can develop normally without getting left behind,” she said.