College is often seen as a time to have fun — a chance for young people to explore the world and absorb the wisdom of those around them. But when Julia Selezneva lost almost all hearing capability during her junior year at UC Berkeley, her opportunity to take advantage of these experiences was lost as well.
Though naturally outgoing and enthusiastic, Selezneva began to avoid the sort of social events she used to enjoy, like restaurant dinners where gossiping with friends over loud music became impossible. She would suppress questions in class for fear of repeating those of her classmates.
Not only did this hearing loss distort her sense of the world — it also began to compromise her personal identity.
Selezneva, now 26, lost all hearing in her left ear at age 6 and experienced moderate hearing loss in her right ear, which she was able to manage with a hearing aid. In college, though, her right ear’s already limited hearing capability dropped significantly, leading to near-deafness.
But now, because of a small computer imbedded under her skin and hidden by her long brown hair, she says she can be herself again.
“I’m happy again, having implants,” Selezneva said. “I feel myself coming back to the person I used to be, more focused on class and building friendships with classmates without struggling to hear them.”
In 2010, Selezneva had a cochlear device implanted into just her left ear, which electrically stimulated the auditory nerve and allowed her to hear once more. The device syncs up to an external sound processor Selezneva wears that captures noise and translates it into digital information that is received by the surgically implanted component, which then sends the information to the brain.
After getting the implant in her left ear, Selezneva was hesitant to get the same surgery in her right, worried about being entirely dependent on a machine and acknowledging the many risks and uncertainties. After the first surgery, her hearing was not immediately perfect, and voices at first “sounded Mickey Mouselike and cartoonish.”
In the summer of 2012, she decided to take the leap.
But even after the successful implantation of the device, Selezneva remained anxious. She obsessively posted questions on cochlear implant forums.
“I posted everything, like ‘I think I sneezed my cochlear implant out’,” Selezneva recalled. “And they let me know that that wasn’t possible.”
Once she felt adequately prepared to advocate for individuals going through similar situations, she applied for the Graeme Clark and Anders Tjellstrom Scholarship, to which more than 150 students also applied. She, along with seven other students, was recently chosen as a 2013 winner of the $8,000 scholarship.
Now a medical student at the UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco Joint Medical Program, Selezneva hopes to be an “outstanding physician” and improve her patients’ quality of life.
“This award rightfully recognizes a remarkable young individual,” said John Swartzberg, a professor in the School of Public Health who had Selezneva as a student. “She will bring to her career in medicine a focused, intelligent and creative mind in addition to tremendous empathy for her patients.”
He added that despite her hearing impairment, Selezneva was one of the best students in class and that he is personally inspired by her determination to “grow, progress and doggedly follow her dream of becoming a physician.”
Similarly, Selezneva impressed the panel of judges for the scholarship with her spirit, determination and academic achievements, according to Kelly Krueger, the media representative for Cochlear Americas, the organization that funded her scholarship.
Looking back, Selezneva now believes her struggles with hearing will allow her to better empathize with patients and to understand how their health may affect their mood.
“The most inspirational fact is, a lot of times, you see people willing to blame anything and look for a way to excuse bad performance and say ‘I got a bad deal in life’,” said her boyfriend, Yoganand Chillarige, who Selezneva says was instrumental in alleviating her reservations about the surgery. “But she’s turned it into a strength and has done really well with it. She hasn’t let this hold her back in any single way.”
Virgie Hoban covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected].