Sound decision

Kristi Conner discovered what would become her professional calling as a high school senior when volunteering at a preschool during a National Honor Society project.

Conner met a 4-year-old girl named Kelly in her hometown of Columbia City near Fort Wayne, where the girl – who couldn’t hear — taught the young woman sign language.

Moved by the experience, Conner chose to major in speech pathology and audiology at Ball State University, and then narrowed her career path to audiology based upon an aptitude in science. Audiologists are the primary health-care professionals who evaluate, diagnose, treat and manage hearing loss and balance disorders in adults and children.

After eight years of college and a year’s professional experience, Conner learned of an appealing opportunity in Columbus where she could help patients enjoy a heightened quality of life.

Conner joined Audiology Hearing and Balance in Columbus in 2007, working as a doctor of audiology. Within a year at age 28, Conner purchased the Columbus practice – one of the company’s six locations — and renamed it Sound Hearing Solutions.

It was a big step, but Conner was no stranger to commitment. The new business owner was already a wife and mother of two young sons when she launched Sound Hearing Solutions with financial assistance from a grandmother who provided an interest-bearing loan.

“I had great support,” Conner said. “My husband (Michael) is amazing.”

The two met when they worked at Family Video in Columbia City. She was a high school senior and he was a college sophomore.

Married since 1999, Michael Conner has been a stay-at-home dad for the majority of the couple’s time together – since their oldest son, now 17, was 3 months old.

“I didn’t have to worry about the kids. He was with them all of the time,” Conner said.

Although many first-time business owners have to learn about managing a company on the fly, Conner’s circumstances gave her a leg up.

Conner minored in the Foundations of Business at Ball State, which gave her practical information on starting a business in audiology. And during her first post-college job as an audiologist in Grandville, Michigan, Conner investigated the idea of purchasing that business, gaining some ground-level insight into what having a financial stake would entail.

When ultimately making the leap into ownership after relocating to Columbus, Conner worked early on with a local professional coach who helped her with some important business decisions.

Conner expanded Sound Hearing Solutions in 2016, purchasing the final two offices of Audiology Hearing and Balance in Greensburg and Madison, Indiana – before selling the Madison practice a year ago.

The Sound Hearing audiology centers employ three doctors of audiology and four support-staff employees. The centers provide hearing tests for patients and carry hearing aids in several budget levels, including the top-end technology with noise management features. However, sometimes all that’s needed is a less expensive amplification device that may increase a person’s ability to hear the television or telephone, for example, Conner said.

Sound Hearing Solutions is among about a half-dozen local hearing practices or ear, nose and throat clinics with audiologists on staff. Patients needing surgery or other medical assistance are referred to an ENT doctor.

Conner’s customers run the gamut, from a 6-month-old born with hearing loss to a pair of patients who are 101. The majority of her patients are 55 or older.

Hearing loss typically occurs one of two ways – either you’re born with it or it’s noise-induced from situations such as exposure to loud music or gun shots, or in work environments including factories, lawn care and woodworking, Conner said.

Hearing loss can be sudden or gradual, such as during the natural aging process.

The disorder is felt by 30 to 35 percent of adults age 65 and older, and 40 to 50 percent of adults 75 and older, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders.

“It can happen so gradually that you don’t realize you are losing your hearing,” Conner said.

Pam Whiteside, 75 of Columbus, has been seeing Dr. Conner for about 12 years after experiencing gradual loss of her hearing.

She could still hear, but sounds were muffled before she got hearing aids, said Whiteside, who ran a catering business out of her home with her husband.

Conner recommends adults schedule a hearing test – which takes about 20 minutes — by age 55 or 60 to establish a baseline, and then be tested every one or two years after that to check for changes.

“Don’t let it go,” Whiteside said. “You’ll miss out on a lot.”

Steve Stanton agrees. The 69-year-old account executive for a plywood company sought help from Conner about two years ago.

“My loss of hearing was probably work-related,” the Columbus man said. “Years ago, I worked in a factory. There was a lot of noise. Being young and silly, I didn’t wear hearing protection. As I got older, it got worse.”

When Conner arrived in Columbus and started advertising her business in The Republic, Stanton remembers developing a positive impression of Sound Hearing Solutions – and decided that if he ever developed hearing problems, he would look Conner up.

When that time finally came time, Stanton followed through on.

“I saw Kristi and got hearing aids the same day,” Stanton said. “My family said I should have done this a long time ago.”

Even though Stanton’s co-workers could not easily see his hearing aids, they quickly suspected he had started wearing them.

“People noticed that I was quiet,” he said. “I was talking loud (before) because I couldn’t hear.”

While he waited longer than he should have before seeking help, Stanton urges others to act more quickly.

“If you think you have a hearing problem, don’t wait. Go now. It’s the only way you can save what you’ve got,” Stanton said.

A third Columbus patient of Conner’s suspected she was experiencing hearing loss about 15 years ago as an elementary school teacher in her late 40s.

But she waited about five years before getting help, initially convinced she was too young to need hearing aids.

Paula Bandos, 64, who retired in 2017 from South Side Elementary, learned from Conner that her hearing loss – difficulty with middle sounds — was hereditary.

The active woman – who rides a bicycle, plays pickleball, cross-country skis and hikes —

is now on her second pair of hearing aids, which she said typically last five to six years.

“My social interaction has greatly improved. Phone conversations are improved. When I was a teacher, I didn’t realize how loud my classroom was because I couldn’t hear some of the sounds,” Bandos said.

“It’s a big investment,” Bandos said of hearing aids, which can range in cost from $1,500 to $7,000 a pair, “but definitely worth the effort to get a hearing test and give hearing aids a try because it will really make a difference in your life.”

Helping people regain or improve their hearing gives Conner great personal satisfaction as she develops long-time relationships with patients who become like family.

“Sometimes it becomes very emotional. The patient starts to cry and I start crying. It’s really an amazing day when that happens,” Conner said.

Sound Hearing Solutions

Services and products: Diagnostic hearing testing; customized programming to treat specific hearing needs, including hearing aids; hearing aid cleaning, programming and repairs on all major brands; hearing aid accessories; assisted listening devices that can be used in conjunction with, or independently of, your hearing instruments including phone and television amplifiers, alarm clocks and other alerting devices; custom molds of hearing protection for hunters, musicians, swimmers and custom-fit ear buds for use with audio devices.

Address: 2475 Northpark, Suite 10, Columbus; satellite office in Greensburg

Phone: 812-372-1886

Email: [email protected]

Website: www.lifesoundsgood.com

Hours: Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Dr. Kristi Conner

Age: 42

Family: Married since 1999 to Michael Conner; sons Holden, 17, and Eliot, 16.

Hometown: Columbia City, near Fort Wayne

Residence: Columbus since 2007

Education: Bachelor of Science in Speech Pathology and Audiology, Ball State University, 2002; Doctor of Audiology, Ball State University, 2006

Career: Audiology extern, Physicians Hearing Clinic, Fort Wayne, 2005-2006; audiologist, Grandville (Michigan) Ear and Hearing, 2006-2007; audiologist, Audiology Hearing and Balance, Columbus, 2007-2008; owner and audiologist, Sound Hearing Solutions, 2008-present.

Medical affiliations: Member, American Academy of Audiology (AAA); board certified by the American Board of Audiology (ABA)

5 stages of hearing loss

1) Denial

2) Anger

3) Bargaining for just one more day of normal hearing or one more day of not having to deal with their problem is the most private stage of the process.

4) Loss of self-esteem, difficulty in doing today what was easy yesterday, suspicion of others, social isolation and loneliness are all part of the depression stage.

5) Acceptance.

Source: Sound Hearing Solutions website