Girl Born Profoundly Deaf Reaches for the Sky, and Finds Her Dream Job There

March 03, 2020

Ellie Graeber says she has never let the profound hearing impairment in both of her ears get in the way of what she wants, and she has the record to prove it.

In fourth and fifth grades, she was the only girl on her Pop Warner football team in northwest Indiana, responding to hand signals coaches made up for her because her cochlear implant speech processor, necessary for her to hear, didn’t fit under a helmet.

A dedicated athlete, she also played basketball throughout high school, ending her career as the starting point guard on the varsity team.

Now, at 23, Ellie scored what she calls her “dream job”: a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines.

“I’ve never let my hearing impairment hold me back from anything,” she said.

Navigating Childhood with Hearing Loss

Ellie was born profoundly deaf in both ears, wearing hearing aids until she turned five. At that age, she underwent surgery for her first cochlear implant at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. At that time, cochlear implant technology was still new, and implantation of both ears was not yet being done.

Cochlear implants are electronic devices that help many children with significant hearing loss. The implant stimulates auditory nerve fibers in the inner ear, providing information to the brain about spoken language and environmental sounds. For children like Ellie, it is now standard to implant both ears because there are many advantages, especially better hearing in background noise. 

Nancy Young, MD, Medical Director of Audiology and Cochlear Implant Programs at Lurie Children’s, is the founder of the hospital’s cochlear implant program, one of the largest programs of its kind in the United States. She was Ellie’s surgeon.

For years, Ellie went to school and functioned with a cochlear implant on her left ear and a hearing aid on her right ear. She was mainstreamed in school and never felt different from her classmates, she said.

When she was in 8th grade, Ellie started researching online what it might be like to have cochlear implants in both ears.

“I was doing so well with the implant I had; I wondered if I would hear even better with a second one,” she said.

A Successful Second Surgery

After talking with her parents and Dr. Young about the potential benefits of a second implant, Ellie and her family decided to go for it. Dr. Young implanted Ellie’s second ear when she was 14 years old.

Since Ellie was older, she was able to do more listening exercises on her own to help hearing improve after surgery. She watched TV with captions to help train her newly implanted ear to understand words she hadn’t been able to before.

Eventually, her hearing in the ear with the second implant improved greatly, as did her ability to understand what people were saying in noisy situations.

A couple of years later, Ellie came to realize her ideal job as an adult would be to become a flight attendant, specifically for Southwest Airlines. “I loved the fun-loving spirit of their staff,” she said.

When she turned 20, the minimum age necessary for the airline’s flight attendants, she applied, stating in her cover letter that her life’s greatest accomplishment was overcoming her hearing loss.

Reaching Her Goal

About a year after Ellie first applied for the job at Southwest, she got a call for a phone interview, flying to Dallas a month later for an interview at the airline’s headquarters. Soon after, she was hired, contingent on passing training, like all flight attendants.

“It didn’t feel real,” she said. “I was so excited.”

A little later, to ensure Ellie felt comfortable in the role, she flew to Dallas for a “Day in the Life” experience as a flight attendant.

“They wanted to know If I felt confident and comfortable with the job. I was grateful for that, because it eased any concerns I had about my hearing,” she said.

‘Never Giving Up’

After successfully completing training, in October Ellie officially became a Southwest Airlines flight attendant, a feat accomplished by less than five percent of applicants for the job. She was among the first with cochlear implants.

“It’s my dream coming true, for sure,” she said.

At her training graduation ceremony, Ellie received the airline’s “Warrior Spirit” award, presented to the flight attendant trainee who “best exemplifies striving to be the best, displaying a sense of urgency and never giving up,” said Darin Sanders, manager of inflight initial training at Southwest Airlines University.

Ellie hopes young people with cochlear implants don’t limit themselves. It helps to practice activities that might feel scary or intimidating, she said, such as making phone calls. It also helps to have an “awesome audiologist” like I did, Ellie said, referring to Beth Tournis, Au.D., a senior audiologist at Lurie Children’s.

“Everyone’s situation is different, but don’t compare yourself to others. Don’t let anybody tell what you can or cannot do. It may require hard work, but it’s 100% worth it.”