Distinguished Chatham Charter alum was first person to undergo treatments to restore hearing

Posted 2/14/20

PITTSBORO — Amber Vaughn was born into a largely silent world.

Now a 19-year-old college freshman, she was diagnosed at birth with bilateral microtia and astresia, or the absence of an external …

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Distinguished Chatham Charter alum was first person to undergo treatments to restore hearing

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PITTSBORO — Amber Vaughn was born into a largely silent world.

Now a 19-year-old college freshman, she was diagnosed at birth with bilateral microtia and astresia, or the absence of an external auditory ear canal, which resulted in conductive hearing loss.

At just one month old, Amber was equipped with a hearing aid, outfitted to a band the infant wore around her head.

Her doctors weren’t optimistic about her future, breaking news to her parents — Brian and Christina Vaughn — that their young daughter would likely depend upon sign language to communicate. It was just one of those things. The luck of the draw.

Amber’s hearing impairment wasn’t hereditary. But she did inherit from her parents — who weren’t content to merely accept the doctors’ prognosis — a fighting spirit. Her parents always encouraged her to live as normal a life as possible and interact with the hearing community.

Instead of relying on sign language, as doctors had forecast for Amber’s future, her parents charted a different path: enrolling her in auditory verbal therapy when she was merely six weeks old. As the toddler grew, her parents continued their efforts to improve Amber’s hearing. They provided her with hearing devices in 5th grade, a decision that “completely transformed” Amber’s ability to communicate.

At a young age, she was sometimes picked on by other children because of the visible, physical mis-formation of her external ear. But the bullying, she says now — her fighting spirit emerging — “was only really a struggle when I was little.”

Persisting to fight and stay positive, Amber, with the love and support of her family, consulted audiologists with the aim of improving her hearing as much as possible.

When she was in her early teens, she became the first person in the world to undergo a series of operations — six or seven in total, she said, in 2012 and 2013 — aimed at improving her hearing. She was casual at first — her attitude, she says laughing, was “yeah, whatever” ­ — about being the first in this particular medical arena, but now she says the distinction is “super cool.” Her doctor wrote a paper about the groundbreaking procedures and, Amber said, at least “a couple of other people” have since benefited from the same procedures.

Most importantly, those operations prepared her to finally receive bilaterally implanted Bone Anchored Hearing Aids (BAHA).

The devices not only helped Amber hear, they changed her life.

“It helped so much,” she said. “I could hear better. And it also made me feel a lot more confident.”

Amber went on to excel both personally and academically, distinguishing herself as a student at Chatham Charter School in Siler City, where she graduated, she allows modestly, with a 4.0 GPA.

“I don’t want to brag too much about it,” she said, “but I was a pretty good student.”

Administrators at Chatham Charter don’t mind bragging on the distinguished alum.

“She’s the epitome of what we would want in a student at Chatham Charter,” said Beth McCullough, the school’s executive director of Secondary Programs & Communications. “She was an excellent student. Very accomplished.”

McCullough recalled that she only became aware of Amber’s hearing challenges when Amber was in her junior year at the Siler City school.

“That probably tells you something right there,” said McCullough. “She’s so accomplished and so self-confident. I never knew about it.”

Amber’s hearing devices have also allowed the teenager to flourish in high school extracurricular activities. She served in several leadership positions with Chatham Charter’s chapter of DECA, a program that prepares emerging leaders and entrepreneurs for careers in marketing, finance, hospitality and management in high schools nationwide. She was also heavily involved in high school sports, playing volleyball and serving as captain of her school’s cheerleading team.

“I liked cheering the best,” she said.

And Amber was Chatham Charter’s 2019 Homecoming Queen, returning to her alma mater in Siler City just two weeks ago to crown her successor.

“She’s still very involved in the school,” McCullough said.

Now a freshman at Roanoke College, a private school in Salem, Virginia, Amber is continuing to excel academically — she’s enjoying learning French, she said, and she particularly likes mathematics.

On top of all that, Amber was also recently chosen to receive of an academic scholarship from Cochlear, the manufacturer of hearing aids. She was was selected for the 9th annual Cochlear Anders Tjellström Scholarship, which recognizes young leaders who uphold Cochlear’s “ideals of leadership, humanity and demonstrate high academic achievement.”

Eight out of 189 applicants were selected to receive either the Anders Tjellström Scholarship or the Cochlear Graeme Clark Scholarship from Cochlear this year. The awards are given annually to Cochlear device recipients to help them accomplish their goals through education.

Scholarship winners receive $2,000 per year for up to four years at an accredited college or university. Applicants are selected for the scholarship program by a committee of hearing healthcare professionals, which take into account the applicant’s leadership, academics, extracurricular activities and community involvement.

As a high school senior, she’d undertaken a project with the North Chatham Fire Department, where dad Brian is a firefighter, developing a marketing plan for the department’s 50th anniversary celebration.

Even now though out of state for studies, Amber has her mind on home.

“I love Pittsboro,” she said.

It’s not only where she was born and raised, it’s where she plans to return after college, aiming to live and work in her hometown.

Randall Rigsbee can be reached at rigsbee@chathamnr.com.

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