Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Las Vegas, Nevada: Deafness doesn’t ground aspiring pilot

Nineteen-year-old Jordan Livingston was born to fly.

Growing up in Canada, Livingston lived near Calgary International Airport, where his father worked the ground crew.

As a young boy, he would gaze up as jets flew over his house en route to the airport. Watching those planes soaring above the clouds inspired the boy to become a commercial airline pilot someday.

“I looked up at the sky and said, ‘I want to fly one of those,’” said Livingston, who built model airplanes as a child. “I’ve always been passionate about flying since before I could even remember.”

However, Livingston was born profoundly deaf in both ears.

As a baby, he slept through everything, from loud thuds to thunderstorms. Early on, doctors dismissed his parents’ concerns that their son may be deaf. They said Livingston was just a very sound sleeper.

One day, his mother took a walk with her infant son in his stroller. A firetruck sped by, horns blaring. Jordan — then nearly a year old — didn’t even bat an eye.

“That was the moment I knew,” Trina Livingston, 41, said. “There was no denying it.”

Trina placed her son on a Canadian government wait list for a cochlear implant. It’s an electronic device that stimulates the auditory nerve in the inner ear, and allows a deaf person to hear sounds.

After more than two years on the wait list, Livingston received his first cochlear implant. It allowed him to hear for the first time out of his right ear.

“When they turned them on, I saw his eyes light up,” his mother said. “He was so excited.”

Since he was diagnosed late, Livingston entered kindergarten the following year developmentally behind. He worked with a private speech therapist to catch up to his talking peers, training his right ear to recognize sounds and distinguish spoken words.

By the time he moved to Las Vegas a couple of years later, Livingston could hear without assistance from traditional hearing aids or speaker systems. He went on to Bridger Middle School and Rancho High School’s aviation magnet programs.

However, having only one cochlear implant, Livingston couldn’t tell which direction sounds were coming from. He lacked directional hearing, like a one-eyed person lacks depth perception.

It’s a skill that’s crucial for flying. Pilots use their ears to diagnose engine failures and heed auditory warnings in the cockpit.

People wondered if Livingston could pass the Federal Aviation Administration's stringent medical exams. Some even questioned whether a deaf person should fly at all.

"The more people told me I couldn't, the more determined I became not to let any obstacle prevent me from reaching my goals," Livingston said.

He decided to get a second cochlear implant for his left ear, an expensive proposition that could run upwards of $100,000. His family coughed up about $8,000 in co-pays; health insurance covered the remainder.

Livingston passed the medical exam, and when he was 16, he received his private pilot's license, which allowed him to fly small, single-engine planes. At the time, he didn’t even have a learner's permit to drive a car.

“I remember sitting in the plane, and thinking if Jordan makes a mistake, we’d be dead,” Trina Livingston said. “But he did very good. It was exhilarating.

“When he was diagnosed deaf, all I could think was all of those dreams that were ripped away from him,” she continued. “But all of a sudden, I realized it didn’t affect his life at all. Seeing him fly was a pretty amazing thing.”

After graduating from Rancho’s aviation academy, Livingston entered Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., where he is an aviation business administration major. Livingston is still training for his dream job: piloting a Boeing 737 plane for Southwest Airlines.

“One day, I’ll be that pilot flying over a little boy who is gazing up at me as he dreams of flying,” Livingston said. “I honestly don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t gotten those cochlear implants. Without them, I’d be upset I couldn’t pursue my dreams.”

Livingston recently received an $8,000 scholarship from Cochlear Americas, a cochlear implant manufacturer impressed with his sense of determination in the face of daunting obstacles. He hopes to inspire other deaf children to follow their dreams.

“So many people have said I can’t be a pilot,” Livingston said. “If you have drive and perseverance, you can accomplish anything.”

Story and photos:  http://www.lasvegassun.com

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