As a board-certified audioprosthologist, Blaine Smith understands the challenges facing individuals with hearing-impairments. It was still painful for him to learn, however, that many children in Mexico and Central America who suffer from hearing loss go untreated because their families cannot afford rehabilitation services. Plagued with diseases such as rubella and scarlet fever, youngsters living in poverty go to the hospital only when their problems are life threatening. At that critical point, the children receive high doses of antibiotics that in many cases destroy hair cells, damage the middle ear, and cause hearing loss.
When Smith first learned about special education students who needed hearing aids at a school in Saltillo, Mexico, he set out to bring his services to the children free of charge. On that first trip in 1988, Smith used all of the 50 hearing aids he took with him, and wished he had brought more, because the number of children in need was larger than he had anticipated. Through subsequent visits to the region, Smith learned that hearing loss among children in Mexico and Central and South America is widespread, and, in some areas, reaches epidemic proportions.
In his research, Smith found studies that showed 60% of children in elementary schools living in border towns of Mexico failed a hearing test. This number, however, does not include the children who live in smaller towns or villages where they have no access to education, and therefore are never tested. Smith estimates the problem may be even more prevalent than research indicates. After that first trip to Saltillo, Smith formed “Vaqueros del Oido” (“The Hearing Cowboys”), a group of audiologists and other professionals volunteers committed to bringing hearing aids and hearing health care to indigent populations.
Over the last 13 years, Smith and his volunteers have cared for more than 2,000 children and adults during their journeys to Mexico and Central and South America. On average, the group makes two trips per year, bringing hearing aids to as many as 200 children per visit. All the services are provided free of charge-the group does not receive any compensation for their work. But they do rely on the generosity of their own patients in the United States, who donate their old hearing aids. Charitable and civic organizations have helped out by paying for airline tickets and donating hearing aids.
Smith hopes he will someday have the means to expand the project and is already planning a trip to Chile. The contribution Smith has made in children’s lives crosses borders of the United States, Mexico and countries in Central and South American. In San Antonio, Smith founded Advanced Hearing & Communications, Inc., a service-oriented practice he has run for 15 years. On many occasions, Smith also donates reconditioned hearing aids to indigent patients. For the past six years, Smith has also served on the Board of Directors of Sunshine Cottage School for Deaf Children in San Antonio. At the school, he is well known for sponsoring an annual “Cowboy Breakfast” for the l00 deaf children enrolled at the school.