Hearing Implants Mean No Limits for Andie Aviv

Andie Aviv collects the coveted tricolor ribbon that means best in show honors .

A cochlear implant allows Andie Aviv to be competitive in the show ring. (Photo courtesy Andie Aviv)

What do we admire in others? While largely a matter of personal taste, there are some attributes commonly held to be exceptional. One of those is the ability to choose one’s path, powering through limitations real or imagined to arrive at the desired result. In that tradition, San Fernando Valley rider and resident Andie Aviv was born with a condition that left her virtually deaf. Her parents’ quick-thinking resulted in early surgical intervention with Andie, now 12, the recipient of a Cochlear Nucleus Implant System that allows her to live life to the fullest, pursuing her equestrian dreams and a path as an athlete. Needless to say, where sport is involved, the senses are essential not only for high achievement, but for safety — one’s own and that of colleagues and competitors.  There are a wide range of applications for this sort of life-changing biomedical advance, of which the ability to navigate in the midst of fast-moving thousand pound creatures is only one. From simple social interaction to enjoyment of the arts through music, the potential for enriched experience is enormous and we are pleased to share this information, and honored that Andie (and her publicist Molly Koch, at Communications Strategy Group, whose graciousness and patience cannot be overestimated) approached us to share her story. Andie was interviewed by Paula Parisi on behalf of The Equestrian News.

TEN: Since you have been riding and jumping competitively since a young age, what were the issues that hearing loss presented challenges with? For instance, can you hear your horse’s footfalls? What else?
ANDIE AVIV: I have only been riding for about three years now, but I ride five to six days per week and love it more than anything. I remember begging my mom to let me ride from when I was super little. I really love all animals, but horses and I have some kind of crazy connection! I was relentless when it came to convincing my mom – who is also an equestrian – to let me ride! Until I was 9 or 10 years old, I was pretty much limited to petting zoos and pony rides until I finally wore her down and she let me take some lessons.

TEN: Was the surgery terribly difficult?
ANDIE AVIV: Well, I was an infant so I don’t remember the surgery, but I don’t think so. It’s fast and was probably a lot more stressful for my parents than me! Learning to listen and speak takes more effort than the actual surgery, but I am grateful my parents and my sisters helped with that when I was young. Now I can be like everyone else and talk up a storm. I don’t remember any of the speech therapy or work that we did when I was very little, but I do remember my audio verbal therapist, Sylvia Rotfleisch. We are still friends today. And, a couple of times a year, I go to something called a MAPping appointment for my implants with my audiologist Joan Hewitt at Project Talk in Encinitas, California. She adjusts volume and the quality of the sound on the electrodes of the implant that is wired inside my cochlea.

TEN: How had your hearing abilities impacted your sporting activities on horseback? 
ANDIE AVIV: My deafness is not really an issue as far as my capabilities are concerned. I think part of the problem at first was that everyone feared I wouldn’t be able to hear well enough with my Cochlear Implants under my helmet, or that if I fell off and hit my head I would damage all that hardware that is wired inside my cochlea. Luckily neither of those things has happened. It took a little trial and error to find a helmet that holds my Cochlear Implants in place and that doesn’t knock them off; but my Samshield works perfectly. I also use audio devices for equestrians in the warm up ring with my trainer at horse shows to help me hear better over the sound of other riders and other distractions. I don’t use these same accessories in the show ring though. You see, I don’t think I would ever want to distinguish myself from other riders because of my deafness.

Many of my competitors don’t even know I can’t hear without my Cochlear Implants and they don’t realize that even with them on it’s sometimes difficult to hear if it’s windy or when there are multiple announcements going on. I know my mom goes crazy when I am in a medal final and there is a test and the announcer has a soft voice that’s hard to hear. However, I am pretty comfortable raising my hand and asking for it to be repeated if I think I’ve missed hearing something. There have been times when I’ve been in a flat class on a windy day and haven’t heard the announcer call for a different action. I lost a class that way once and the judge, who is one of the few people who knows I am deaf, felt terrible that it happened but there was nothing to be done about it. I missed hearing it and blew the class. It can happen.

Andie Aviv demonstrates the low-profile of the exterior portion of the Cochlear Implant, which sits behind her ear.

Andie Aviv says aside from a few challenges presented by wind, there is not much she can’t hear thanks to her Cochlear Implants.

TEN: How did you compensate for those things you couldn’t hear? I’m guessing you are quite sensitive to the beat, which is something all riders must be, but I’m wondering if it’s heightened for you?
ANDIE AVIV: As I mentioned, if I am competing in a show on the flat I might glance around at others and see when they transition to do something else if it’s a particularly windy day or the speaker system is not the best. Otherwise, I can usually hear well on my own. The thing about hearing loss or deafness is, you don’t know what it is that you don’t hear, so you don’t know what you may have missed. I can’t really explain how I compensate, but if I haven’t heard something it usually means my trainer has to yell and repeat herself or it may mean I have cut someone off in the warm up ring because I didn’t hear them coming up behind me, or it may mean I mess up in the show ring because I didn’t hear the announcer correctly. Most of the time though, I hear fine.

TEN: Can you describe what being in the ring would sound like without the cochlear implants activated?
ANDIE AVIV: I cannot hear anything at all without my Cochlear Implants. I am profoundly deaf, which means a jet airplane could take off behind me and I wouldn’t hear it.

TEN: Aside from sport, what is the biggest advantage?
ANDIE AVIV: I hear everything pretty much and function just like everyone else. I have always gone to mainstream school and am actually ahead of many of my peers in math. Down the road, foreign languages may be harder for me. I am going to start French this fall. Cochlear has waterproof accessories now, called the Cochlear Nucleus Aqua+, so I can swim and play in the ocean with my sound processors on and have pretty good hearing, which is awesome! The Aqua+ didn’t exist when I was little, so pool parties were not my favorite, but now it’s no big deal.  In general, I feel I can’t function socially without my implants, or at least I cannot engage with others. I rely on them for pretty much all my waking hours.

TEN: Is the implant part fairly unobtrusive? And you can take the outer part off and shower normally, etc…. or are there special precautions you must take?
ANDIE AVIV:  It’s pretty easy to use and wear. The biggest deal is for me is to not lose it, which I shouldn’t because I never take it off except when I go to sleep. I have to charge my batteries every night and keep the external piece, the sound processor, in a dry box to maintain it better. I do take one off usually at the end of the day and wear just one sometimes to give my head or brain a break (I wear two by the way – one on each ear). It’s the same in the morning too. It takes me a while to want to put my sound processors on in the morning; I like the quiet. My mom has a friend who is an adult who wears cochlear implants and he says that they can make his brain tired too so he understands how it feels to want to take a break from them at the end of the day or delay putting them on in the morning. I can also take them off if I don’t want to listen to someone or something, which makes everyone jealous!

TEN: Would you recommend this surgery to others?
ANDIE AVIV: Absolutely! It would be so sad not to hear I think. I have recommended this surgery many times – even to an older adult family friend who finally got a hearing implant after being so afraid and it changed her life! She got Meniere’s disease and it affected her hearing and then her hearing loss affected how she was living her life in a negative way, but now her cochlear implants have made her love her life again.

TEN: What does it sound like to you when your horse whinnies? Assuming your horse whinnies. Some are quieter than others. Mine happens to be a loudmouth!
ANDIE AVIV: I have two horses and one is in love with the other one—they are having a major bro-mance! It has become so annoying because he whinnies all the time! One horse’s name is Special (show name Special Bond) and he whinnies for Boy (show name Splendid) and he’s loud! At first it was this cute little whinny, but now everyone at the barn wants us to separate them because it has become such a loud problem! And yes, it’s even a noise problem for me!