Clayton County firefighter and paramedic Kelli Duncan talks to parents of hearing-impaired children about her own successes. (Staff Photo: Kathy Jefcoats)
RIVERDALE — Like many mothers of firefighters, Toni Duncan worries about her daughter at the beginning of each shift and breathes a sigh of blessed relief at the end, knowing she is safe and sound in her own bed.
Her focus could be on the one thing that sets Kelli Duncan apart from her fellow firefighters but that is the least of her concerns. Kelli was diagnosed at 3 with profound hearing loss, a condition that was corrected through cochlear implants.
“I worry for the same reasons other mothers do,” said Toni Duncan. “Not because of her hearing loss. She’s a hard-worker, well-trained, she knows what she’s doing. I don’t worry about her not being able to do her job.”
Laila Lawrence of Brookhaven is mother to Lilia, 4. The Lawrence family, including dad Lewis, spent Saturday with dozens of others at Clayton County Fire Station 4 in Riverdale to meet Duncan and hear her inspirational story of overcoming her disability.
Like Duncan, Laila was diagnosed at a young age with profound hearing loss, hers due to Pendred syndrome, a genetic disorder. She wears a hearing aid in one ear and was fitted a year ago with a cochlear implant. Both are camouflaged by her long, curly brown hair.
Like Toni Duncan, Laila Lawrence’s worries about her growing daughter have little to do with her hearing loss.
“She is typical for a 4-year-old,” she said. “We’re very blessed that technology is available so that she can hear and talk and have all the opportunities that other children have.”
Lawrence said hearing Duncan’s success story was inspirational. Now that she is pregnant with twin boys, having her daughter’s hearing loss corrected is one less thing for Laila to worry about.
“It is wonderful to see that our little girl is going to be just fine,” she said.
Lewis carried his daughter on his shoulders through the fire station on East Fayetteville Road as some firefighters cooked burgers and hot dogs, and others led a tour of the trucks and equipment.
Duncan was assigned to the station — one of the county’s busiest — when she graduated as a firefighter almost seven years ago. At graduation, she was honored with the Top Rung award.
Duncan was hired by former Chief Alex Cohilas.
“I feel very grateful to the chief who gave me this job,” she said. “The county accommodated me and allowed me to stay in the same station. That has allowed me to get to know my fellow firefighters and the community because I’ve been in the same station for so long.”
She is also trained as a paramedic, a position of which she is proud.
“Basically, I’m in charge in a medical situation,” she said. “I’m in the highest position in a pre-hospital setting. The county also provided me with an electronic stethoscope, which helps a lot. They’ve done whatever they can to help me out. There’s nothing I can’t do.”
Like others who choose firefighting as their profession, Duncan thrives on adrenaline and the rush she gets from helping others in crisis.
“To get that pulse back after a cardiac arrest, someone in respiratory distress? There’s not a better feeling,” she said. “To know that what I did has made someone feel better, that makes my day. I am able to physically help the patient and see the results.”
But the road to success was paved with many bumps for the young girl from Marietta, said her mother, who attended Saturday’s event with her husband, Clark Duncan. It took three years to get the child diagnosed and then several years in classes at Auditory-Verbal Center before she was mainstreamed into regular elementary school at 10.
“She just went from there,” said Toni Duncan. “We raised her to know she can do anything. She is a hard-worker and never gives up. She’s unstoppable.”
Debbie Brilling, executive director and CEO of Auditory-Verbal Center, said part of what the nonprofit agency does is help children learn to interpret sound.
“Our technology puts meaning to sounds without sign language and lip-reading,” she said. “We bathe them in sound all day, helping them learn how to hear through therapy. With centers in Atlanta and Macon and now through tele-therapy online, we’re doing what we can to reach out to all kids in Georgia.”
Kelli Duncan got her cochlear implant from Advanced Bionics and consumer specialist Edie Gibson was on hand Saturday to answer questions about the high-tech devices.
“Kids with hearing losses can accomplish their goals,” said Gibson. “Today, we can introduce them to someone who’s achieved her own goal. Without her implant, she has absolutely no hearing and she would not be able to do this job.”
Gibson said parents getting a diagnosis of deafness in their child are often devastated.
“When parents learn their child is deaf, they see their whole world fall apart,” she said. “They learn they do have options but it’s hard to envision that. What does that mean for their child? Will they get married, get a job? It’s so beneficial for them to see Kelli and know that she is successful, despite her hearing loss. It gives them hope for their own children.”