Sound of success

High schools: Deafness has provided an opportunity for Dana Dobbs, who's coaching his Broadneck athletes in a whole new way.

High Schools

January 26, 2001|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

Dana Dobbs' life used to revolve around music and football. Now, he's building a foundation out of what's left.

Dobbs, a cross country and track and field coach at Broadneck High in Annapolis, is a triathlete, a teacher and a father of three, and deafness won't stop him from remaining active.

"Hey, this is me," Dobbs, 35, said. "I don't feel broken, so I don't need fixing."

Dobbs has been a fixture of Anne Arundel County since he moved to the area more than 10 years ago, which is also when he first began to experience hearing loss.

A three-time All-Anne Arundel County Coach of the Year in cross country and track and field, Dobbs has coached at Severna Park and Broadneck. His handsome visage - complete with a boyish smile, shaved head and muscular frame - makes him a difficult person to forget.

"His presence takes your attention away from any disability," said Broadneck senior Merrian Brooks, who runs five events for Dobbs.

Dobbs wears hearing aids on both ears, but it's unclear how much hearing he has retained. He uses the analogy of a piano to describe his range. As the sounds move from low-frequency sounds of the left side of the keyboard to the high-frequency sounds of the right side, Dobbs can't hear anything played after the middle portion.

Dobbs' hearing was fine as a child growing up in Erie, Pa. He learned to play the piano when he was 5 years old and soon graduated to the guitar, flute and violin.

Dobbs also picked up gymnastics, dance and ballet. But his passion was sports, and he excelled in baseball, wrestling, ice hockey and football. Dobbs attended Edinboro University of Pennsylvania to play football for the Fighting Scots.

After he graduated with a degree in special education, Dobbs moved to Maryland. Just as he interviewed for a teaching position at Magothy River Middle School in Arnold in the spring of 1991, Dobbs began to realize that his hearing wasn't as clear as it had been.

"Things had to be louder for me to understand them," he recalled. "And there started to be sounds that flat-out disappeared to me."

Perplexed, Dobbs visited several doctors, who gave varying diagnoses. One medical expert told Dobbs in no uncertain terms, "You blew your ears out."

Unsatisfied, Dobbs began devouring every publication and book he could find regarding hearing loss and deafness. It wasn't until he visited an audiologist in Severna Park that Dobbs found a term he could attach to his condition.

Central neuropathy, sometimes referred to as auditory neuropathy, is defined as a dysfunction in the auditory nerve's ability to send messages to the brain, said Elena Kleifges, an audiologist at Gallaudet University in Washington, the world's only higher-education institution dedicated to the deaf.

Kleifges said the disorder has been a topic in medical journals and publications over the past decade. Kleifges said central neuropathy can be hereditary and afflicts people ranging from infants to senior citizens.

It's unclear how many people suffer from the disorder or what causes central neuropathy, but Kleifges said the number of people who are misdiagnosed is increasing.

"For a long time, it was thought that [central neuropathy] was just a sensory loss due to fevers or stress headaches," Kleifges said. "There's probably a certain percentage out there who do have auditory neuropathy."

Pinpointing the disorder was of some relief to Dobbs, but accepting it was another matter. Enduring periods of denial and grief, Dobbs tried to hide his condition from his colleagues at Magothy River by reading lips.

But reading lips over a long period of time caused stress headaches for Dobbs, who finally decided to tell someone.

"It got to the point where there were a lot of things that I was missing," he said. "I was in a position of responsibility with a lot of kids, and it came time for me to put away my pride."

Jack Smith, principal of Magothy River between 1989 and 1995, said the first hint of Dobbs' deafness was a hearing aid at the start of the fall term in 1991.

"Then it was two hearing aids a couple of weeks later," recalled Smith, now the principal at Meade Middle School. "If I remember correctly, by Christmas, he couldn't hear anything."

Dobbs finally revealed his condition to Smith, who immediately convinced the Board of Education to hire a full-time interpreter and install a TTY-phone line for Dobbs to communicate with parents.

Dobbs had to adjust at home, too. Besides buying an alarm clock that vibrates and installing lights to flash when the doorbell or a phone is ringing, Dobbs had to balance immersing himself in the deaf culture with his responsibilities to his wife and three children.

"When it comes to my wife, I think I can honestly say that she was my biggest support, but at the same time, she was my biggest antagonist," Dobbs said. "I was getting involved in deaf culture, but she was the one to tell me, `Hello, we're still here.' "

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