It was a simple act — the theft of a pair of shoes at a public beach — but since that day two years ago, it’s a loss that’s had a profound effect on Gaston Rodriguez and his family.
It happened in 2019 as Gaston, who is 36, was enjoying a day walking on the sand near Grand Bend, Ont.
When he returned from the walk, the shoes were gone. But the real loss was a tiny electronic device stuffed inside the shoes for safekeeping; a device Gaston relies on to maintain contact with the outside world.
Gaston has been deaf since he was a year old, the result of a complication from contracting meningitis in his native Mexico.
In 2013, he had an inner-cochlear implant installed before arriving in Canada. Unlike hearing aids, which simply amplify sound to counter the effects of hearing loss, cochlear implants use a sound processor that sits behind the ear. The processor captures sound signals and sends them to a receiver surgically implanted under the skin. The signals provide the wearer with the sensation of hearing by bypassing the damaged part of the inner ear.
Cochlear implants don’t restore hearing completely, but the signals they deliver help the wearer to be aware of outside sounds. For people with hearing impairment, they are essential for communication, particularly when combined with lip-reading.
‘He doesn’t have another option’
Without the receiver, the implant that Gaston has can’t help him hear.
His family reported the theft to police, hoping someone would return a device that’s crucial to him but of no value to anyone else. Unfortunately, it was never returned.
And while hearing aids typically cost between $4,000 and $6,000, the device Gaston lost is much more expensive, about $12,000.
“This device, it is specific to his kind of hearing loss,” said Monica Rodriguez, Gaston’s wife. “He doesn’t have another option, this is the only kind of device he can use.”
Staff at the Cochlear Implant Program at London’s University Hospital have worked with the Rodriguez family to access funding to pay for a new receiver, but they’ve run into roadblocks.
The family arrived in Canada in 2017 and have filed a refugee claim after escaping violence in Mexico. A funding application to the Interim Federal Health Program, which provides health care devices for refugees, was denied because it only provides implant equipment for children.
Ontario’s public health insurance plan will cover up to 75 per cent of the cost of a new processor, but only up to a maximum of $5,444 and coverage isn’t extended to non-permanent residents.
Becoming permanent residents would allow the family to access OHIP coverage but the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down the processing time for immigration and refugee applications.
Can’t work or study English
Meanwhile, Gaston is unable to work in his field of painting and construction. Without the implant, he can’t hear what’s going on around him, which creates a safety concern for his employers on the job site. Another problem is his inability to lip-read because of masking protocols on work sites due to COVID-19.
His English classes have also been put on hold.
Monica works as a domestic cleaner and Gaston is able to help her on those jobs, but the cost of a new receiver remains a barrier. The family has launched an online fundraising campaign, which has so far raised $2,650.
Monica said her hope now is that they can get the device replaced not only so that Gaston can return to working in his field, but also communicate easier with his family.
“Having this device, it would change the life of Gaston and the lives of the people in the family,” said Monica. “Right now, this situation, it’s difficult for the kids to understand.”
Left in isolation
Lee Pigeau is the national executive director of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association.
He said in cases where there is no available coverage, families are often left in dire circumstances.
“That’s a really unfortunate situation,” Pigeau said when hearing about Gaston Rodriguez. “When you can’t hear, you really are isolated from society.”
He said the cost of hearing devices such as hearing aids and cochlear implants are going up faster than the rates that the coverage rates of government and employer health plans.
“Things have changed in many years and these devices are complicated, and they’re getting more and more expensive.”