‘Heart of Gold’

A Seymour teen called it one of the best days of her life.

Nicole Wheeler stood Thursday before members of the Seymour Noon Lions Club and presented them with a check for more than $4,500. It’s money she had raised as part of her high school senior project.

That money will go to Indiana Lions Speech and Hearing Inc., which relies on donations to provide free speech and hearing screenings and loaner hearing aids to children and adults.

The senior at Columbus East High School chose the project to pay it forward and help others who are like her — she became deaf at a young age and relies on a cochlear implant to hear.

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She attended schools in Columbus to have access to a deaf interpreter and deaf education teacher, even though she spends her days in regular classes with other students.

To raise the money, she visited area churches and performed sign language to Christian music playing on a CD. She spread the word of her project and went well beyond her original goal of raising $1,000.

“I never knew I could have raised that much,” Wheeler said Thursday through tears. “This is the best day I have ever had, the very best day.”

To Wheeler’s surprise, the Noon Lions Club also presented her with something special.

She was given the Dr. Richard T. Miyamoto Fellowship plaque in recognition of her dedication to the Lions Club, to Lions Club International and to those in need in their communities and around the world.

Coincidentally, Wheeler knows Miyamoto personally because he was the doctor who performed her cochlear implant surgery. He has been recognized around the world for his work to expand the use of the surgically implanted electronic device.

“We are very, very, very proud of you. What hope it gives for our society to have kids like you coming into the world,” Frank Ruane told Wheeler as he presented the award. Ruane is a member of the Seymour Noon Lions Club.

Steve Winegardner, speech and hearing chairman for Indiana Lions Speech and Hearing Inc., attended the presentation and said the organization works in conjunction with Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis and audiologists around the state.

Since 1981, more than 4,500 hearing aids have been loaned to those in need through the organization.

“Very seldom do we get anybody to pay it forward like she has today,” Winegardner said.

When Wheeler was 4 months old, she became sick, and her family thought she had the flu. They took her to a local doctor; but when she experienced a high fever, she was rushed to Riley.

Luckily, before she left, a Seymour doctor had given her medications to treat meningitis. Wheeler’s grandparents, Cathy and Butch Wheeler of Seymour, said that move saved her life. Nicole lives with her grandparents.

Meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, can be fatal. But as a survivor, one can have lifelong health issues.

In Nicole Wheeler’s case, she became deaf. When exactly is complicated because her grandparents said she experienced a 15-minute-long seizure while at Riley. Around that time, doctors noticed she wasn’t reacting to noises.

“A nurse knocked a pan off in her room as a baby, and she didn’t wake up,” Butch Wheeler said.

Soon, doctors suggested she would be a good candidate to receive a cochlear implant. She had the surgery when she was 2 under Miyamoto’s care.

The cochlear implant consists of an external portion that rests behind the ear and a second portion surgically placed beneath the skin. The implant allows her to hear out of her left ear.

Besides taking it off when she showers and sleeps — causing her to be completely deaf — and having to see the doctor each year for a “tune-up,” she said she feels like a normal hearing person with it.

“I don’t feel it,” she said. “I can hear well except for the background noise. I have to be face-to-face to read lips.”

In the midst of trying to fix her hearing problems as a baby, Nicole Wheeler also had open-heart surgery at age 3 to repair four holes in her heart that she was born with.

“She really has overcome so much,” Cathy Wheeler said.

Eventually, she began school, and her grandparents recalled growing up wasn’t easy for their granddaughter.

She had to cope with taunting and bullying by other kids.

“Her speech is like that because of her deafness. She doesn’t talk normal,” Butch Wheeler said. “She was made fun of, called retard, she was called nerd, but she’s withstood it all.”

Her grandparents recalled an incident on the bus as a kindergartner when somehow her cochlear implant was hit.

“(Her ear) swelled up as big as an egg,” Butch Wheeler said.

She had to go to Riley to receive treatment for a serious infection that resulted.

“They opened her up and flushed her with antibiotics,” Cathy Wheeler said.

Nicole Wheeler, however, hasn’t let that negativity or anything else stop her from setting goals. She’ll graduate from high school in June and plans to attend Ivy Tech Community College in the fall, studying social work.

Her grandparents describe her as a person who would do anything for anyone.

“She’s got a heart of gold,” Butch Wheeler said.

Nicole Wheeler also has been involved in the choir at Central Christian Church Seymour, loves to knit and recently went to work at a local grocery store.

Her senior project — her most recent accomplishment — gave her a taste of what it’s like to not only achieve her goal but feel proud doing it.

“I feel really happy with it,” Nicole Wheeler said. “I’m very proud of myself.”

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Dr. Richard T. Miyamoto Fellowship:

Indiana Lions Speech and Hearing established the Miyamoto Fellowship to honor Lions members and others for their dedication to their Lions Club, to Lions Clubs International and to those in need in their communities around the world.

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Name: Nicole Wheeler

Hometown: Seymour

Age: 18

Education: Columbus East High School

Highlights: Deaf at a young age, she relies on a cochlear implant to hear. She recently raised more than $4,500 to go to Indiana Lions Speech and Hearing Inc.