Florence Hall of Iselin heard a whistling sound in her hearing aid, and knew being isolated during the COVID-19 crisis would be even more challenging with her hearing device broken. She speaks frequently to her children, sometimes on the phone — and other times as they stand at a safe distance on her lawn.
“I want to be able to talk with people even if we can’t be together,” said the 79-year-old Hall.
To support patients like Hall during these unprecedented times, the Hackensack Meridian JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute Center for Audiology brainstormed innovative ways to connect with their patients despite the need for social distancing.
They created a new model: curbside hearing aid services.
Hall was able to drive to JFK Johnson and place her broken hearing aid in a paper bag she placed on the bench in the circular driveway outside the facility. Then Karissa Gavin, Au.D., CCC-A, an audiologist, wore a mask and other personal protective equipment as she stepped outside to collect the device.
Gavin spoke, at a safe distance, with Hall in the passenger seat of her car with her husband Robert Hall in the driver’s seat. Gavin took the hearing aid inside for repairs while the couple waited in their car. The device was repaired in about 15 minutes and put back on the bench, where Hall picked it up and returned home.
“It was all so professional and comfortable,” Hall recalled. “I don’t know where I would be now with just one of my hearing aids working. It would feel tilted.”
The Center for Audiology treats patients of all ages — from the youngest to oldest —with a range of hearing and balance-related problems, including tinnitus. The center provides state-of-the art testing for hearing loss, balance problems and communication impairments. The doctoral level, New Jersey licensed and certified audiologists/hearing aid dispensers often develop long-term relationships with their patients.
“Not all, but many, of our patients are older and they really must be socially distant during this time,” said Anne M. Eckert, Au.D., MBA, Administrative Director of Rehabilitation, who came up with the idea to connect with patients. “And we know it’s so important now that our patients be able to talk on the phone, or Zoom or Skype with family. They want to listen to music, or may have programs they want to watch. We don’t want our patients to become withdrawn because their hearing aids are in need of repair.”
The curbside audiology service is for existing patients who need troubleshooting with their hearing aids. The center can repair many hearing aids on-site, although some devices may have to be sent out for more substantial repairs. The center is accepting appointments for new patients, though they will be made for a later date, when JFK Johnson returns to accepting outpatient appointments. Outpatient appointments are currently suspended during the pandemic.
Gavin said the response to the curbside program has been overwhelmingly positive. Patients are receiving the services they need without leaving their car or entering a medical facility.
“The way we do things was completely disrupted by COVID-19,” Gavin said. “But we came up with creative solutions because we still want to be there for our patients.”