Audiologist cheers on patient as she trains to be a nurse




“I wanted her to know that her hearing loss shouldn’t hold her back,” said Ann Kalberer. “Because of her, I can do this,” responded Sara Bushong, who received cochlear implants more than a decade ago.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer,

“Everybody needs an Ann in their life,” says Sara Bushong. “She’s my person.”

That sums up the bond between Riley Children’s Health audiologist Ann Kalberer and Bushong, a longtime patient and now nursing student.

The two have known one another for nearly half of Bushong’s life, ever since she transitioned as a teenage patient from Riley’s hearing-aid team to the cochlear implant team.

“It’s so weird to hear you say you’re in your 30s now,” Kalberer told Bushong as they met in the basement audiology clinic at Riley last week. “You were still wearing hearing aids in both ears in 2008.”

Although Kalberer has been seeing Bushong ever since the younger woman was first evaluated and subsequently fitted with cochlear implants to overcome the profound hearing loss that she was born with, this was not a regular appointment.

Bushong wanted to say a special thank-you to the woman who has been her cheerleader, coach and friend, especially now that she is enrolled in the Indiana University School of Nursing at IUPUI.

“I have been seeing Ann for a long time, and she always goes above and beyond, not just for me but for her other patients as well,” Bushong wrote in an email. “I always leave feeling extra grateful for what I can do because of the encouragement, care and love she gives each time.”

Earlier this month, Kalberer managed to fit Bushong in for a last-minute appointment at the end of the day to switch out some equipment and talk about a special stethoscope she would need for nursing school due to her hearing loss.

“When accepted to the School of Nursing, you need a bunch of equipment, including a stethoscope, blood pressure cuff … things you need to pass your skills test,” Bushong said. “For people like me with hearing loss, a stethoscope can be a challenge. Not a lot of them are hearing loss-friendly.”

While there have been amplified stethoscopes for years, Kalberer said, “when you have an implant you tend to lose all of the natural residual hearing that you have, so just amplifying sound is not helpful.”

A stethoscope the size of a coin that connects to Bluetooth and works with cochlear implants, however, was just what she needed. And it turned out that Kalberer knew of one that had been donated by a previous patient. She left the office and returned minutes later with the device.

“It was amazing how quickly it all fell into place,” Bushong said. “I went to school and had to do a skills check-off, and I didn’t have a single problem. All because Ann was generous not only to fit me in at the end of a busy day but to let me have this device.”

When Kalberer downplayed her contribution, her patient politely interrupted, reminding her that she always offers encouragement and positivity, including when Bushong considered whether she should apply to nursing school.

“Aww shucks,” Kalberer said with a smile.

But seriously, the longtime audiologist added, “I wanted her to know that her hearing loss shouldn’t hold her back. She does so well with her devices. There is a wide range of performance outcomes for patients, and she does beautifully. I just wanted her to know that was something she was capable of. I’m pretty darn proud of her. It’s like she’s my own young ‘un.”

Bushong, who grew up on the southside of Indianapolis with a love of horses, has a degree in equine science from Murray State University, but nursing was calling to her.

“I think just being with Ann and always coming to Riley being around kids and seeing what nurses can do for them lit a fire in me.”

Bushong received her first cochlear implant in her left ear in 2010, and two years later, insurance approved the implant for her right ear. The results were off the chart.

People had warned her that things might sound garbled, but her experience was clear as a bell, she recalled.

“The day I got my implant activated, I was in my car and decided to put my audio cable in because I wanted to see how different it was. I was listening to Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Crazy Train,’ and I heard it perfectly. It was overwhelming.”

What she describes about the sound that first day is “off-the-rails exceptional,” Kalberer said.

“That is not a typical experience. It takes time for the brain to learn the new code, but she’s young, and she had a lot of hearing that she used up until the time she was implanted. Change one of those things and it’s a lot harder.”

With implants, Bushong said, even the most mundane sounds are thrilling.

“You forget how things sound – like the toilet flushing or my mom wearing flip-flops – little things you don’t think about as a person with normal hearing. But when you hear it again, it’s goosebumps.”

As she moves forward in her life and career, Bushong said it’s reassuring to have Kalberer in her corner.

“I can continue in my nursing career knowing that because of her, I can do this. I can do great things.”

Photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist,