2015-04-03 / Neighbors

Humanitarian effort focuses on hearing

Scarborough native travels to Panama to help citizens with hearing impairments
By Michael Kelley
Staff Writer


Over the course of a four-day medical clinic with Northeast Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity, Karen Kirtani, a hearing specialist in Scarborough, attended to the hearing needs of more than 100 people in a rural section of Panama. (Courtesy photo) Over the course of a four-day medical clinic with Northeast Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity, Karen Kirtani, a hearing specialist in Scarborough, attended to the hearing needs of more than 100 people in a rural section of Panama. (Courtesy photo) Residents thousands of miles away are hearing a little bit better thanks to Karen Kirtani, a board-certified hearing instrument specialist with Beltone New England in Scarborough.

Kirtani spent nine days — Jan.17-25 — in Penonome, Panama volunteering with Northeast Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH), an organization of doctors and other medical professionals dedicated to providing vision and medical care around the world.

While many of the other volunteers took care of the medical, dental and physical therapy concerns, Kirtani was focused on attending to people with hering loss who came to the free clinics.

Over the course of her time there, 114 people were fitted with 145 hearing aids that were donated by Beltone Hearing Care Foundation in Chicago.


Karen Kirtani, a hearing specialist with Beltone New England in Scarborough sits, with 37-year-old Pedro Martinez and his mother after outfitting Martinez with a hearing aid at a medical clinic she volunteered at in Penonome, Panama in January. (Courtesy photo) Karen Kirtani, a hearing specialist with Beltone New England in Scarborough sits, with 37-year-old Pedro Martinez and his mother after outfitting Martinez with a hearing aid at a medical clinic she volunteered at in Penonome, Panama in January. (Courtesy photo) “It was the most they had fit on one mission,” said Kirtani, who grew up in Scarborough and lives in Portland.

Many of the patients, who ranged from young children to the elderly, traveled great distances to come to the clinic. Kirtani said she saw many ear problems, such as impacted ear wax, that probably would have easily been taken care of in this country, but in Panama became more problematic, due to lack of medical care for many of the people she saw.

“Hearing loss-wise it was pretty much the same (as in the United States). I would say we saw more extreme hearing loss. Most of the people who came through for help had severe hearing loss,” Kirtani said.

Kirtani said a lot of people both in Panama and the United States go without hearing aids because they cannot afford them. Hearing aids, she said, can cost several thousand dollars.

“Taking the financial aspect out of it was nice for me,” Kirtani said.

Two people Kirtani said she wouldn’t forget were Elvis, 12 and his sister, Yoselina, who visited the clinic with their parents. Both Elvis and Yoselina were born with hearing loss, and attend a school specifically for students with hearing impairments and other disabilities.

“Going from hearing less than half of what is going on in the classroom to having almost normal hearing will be lifechanging for them and their education,” Kirtani said. “That gave me goose bumps.”

Kirtani also treated Jose, a 93-year-old farmer who traveled several hours to get hearing aids, as well as a Keyra, a 16-yearold who was born with birth defects, including loss of hearing in one year and Guillermo, an 18-year-old with cerebral palsy who was born with profound hearing loss. At the clinic Guillermo was able to hear music for the first time with his hearing aids.

“He had a smile that lit the room. He was the last person to be fit. There was not a dry eye in the place,” Kirtani recalled. “It was amazing to see this young man, so happy and so positive.”

This was the second time VOSH had taken a medical mission trip to Panama. Last year, clinics were held in Panama City, the nation’s capital, about two hours from Penonome. Kirtani said moving the clinics to Penonome allowed medical access for people who live more rurally.

“(It) allows some of the people who were a little farther away to come to the clinic. We had people who came four hours by car to get to us, so this helped those people in remote areas,” she said.

Kirtani said she had longed for an opportunity to help overseas. She became aware of this opportunity through her connections with Beltone New England, which had worked with the VOSH group before.

“It’s been something I wanted to do for a long time. It was just never the right timing,” said Kirtani, who has two young children.

Kirtani said she didn’t know exactly what to expect when she got to Penonome, a community of 22,000 that dates back to 1581.

“You get there and you just have to wing it,” Kirtani said. “We had to carry in a lot of equipment, a lot of computer equipment and testing equipment.”

Although she has no specific plans, Kirtani said she would like to do another trip again in the future.

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