Music to my ears: audiologist Sol Barros and the joy of sound

While growing up in Puerto Rico, Sol Barros dreamed of attending college in the continental U.S. Although she was a strong student, Barros’ parents told her that the faraway colleges she yearned for were way beyond the family budget.

But Barros had a plan.

Every school day, she began secretly saving the money her mother gave her for lunch. Usually, friends had plenty to share, or — determined to reach her goal — she simply went without.

Eventually, she was able to save up enough to pay for expensive college admissions applications, which ranged from $50 to $100 each. When recruiting colleges came to her high school for “college day,” Barros dragged her mother along. At the table for Marquette University in Wisconsin, she was told her application had been accepted — she was in.

Her mother was shocked.

“She looked at me and said, ‘How did you do this?’” said Barros. “Then quickly explained that we couldn’t afford it.”

The Marquette official said he needed someone to work for him in the admissions office, which would make her eligible for a scholarship. Although Barros had been accepted at other colleges, she purposely chose a land-locked university with long, dark, cold winters.

“I’d always been a sun worshipper and water is my passion,” she said. “It would have been way too easy to waste my time away on the beach with my friends. I knew if I went to a cold place, I would finish my education. I wouldn’t have to worry about not studying.”

Barros knew she wanted to work in the health field, but when she took an audiology course in communication disorders, she found her passion. Her professor’s first homework assignment was to take a hearing aid from the lab and wear it for a week on campus.

The hearing device was visible and she could hear comments in the library or on her way to class.

“They’d say, ‘Look at her, she’s so pretty, but she’s deaf,’” she said. “It was as though I was somehow incomplete. I realized how poorly people judge others when it comes to disabilities. That opened my heart. I knew I wanted to work in this field and educate people about hearing loss. I wanted people to learn the importance of being compassionate.”

Once she had committed to the field of audiology, her professor allowed her to help in the audiology clinic, where she saw first-hand the profound changes in the lives of those who were finally able to hear for the very first time.

“I helped prepare people for the coming of sound — it was so emotional,” she said. “Nothing compares to that reward.”

Barros went on to earn her master’s degree in hearing science from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1989. After working for an ear, nose and throat group in Indiana, which allowed her to set up mobile audiology clinics in rural areas, Barros took a job in Miami. She was eventually hired by a large corporation to set up shop in Santiago, Chile, and introduced audiological digital technologies throughout South America. As a native Spanish speaker with a love for travel, she was in her element. That’s why, when her South American assignment ended four years later, she spent the next 12 years working as a product manager for a Bay Area-based hearing aid company, which enabled her to travel the entire west coast, Hawaii and her native Puerto Rico.

But after many years on the road, Barros, who married photographer and cinematographer Milos Vlaski in 2007, was ready to settle down in a rural area. After falling in love with Nevada County and buying a home, Barros bought the Audiology Associates Hearing Center in Grass Valley, from longtime friend Karen Coley Bridger, in April 2015.

With nearly three decades of experience as an audiologist, Barros now works in the office with two audiology assistants. Known for her holistic approach to hearing health care, her clients’ “journey” begins with a thorough audiological evaluation, with the understanding that technology alone cannot effectively treat hearing loss. Hearing aids are not like getting fitted with glasses, as the patient must play an integral role in hearing rehabilitation, and family involvement is essential, said Barros.

“What I do is based on personality — I help create a change in behavior because I want to rehabilitate a client’s residual hearing via an electronic device,” she said. “Working with patients is an art. It’s all about brain function and retraining the brain with the introduction of a hearing aid. The biggest struggle is getting used to them. Many people need to develop a schedule and gradually increase the time they wear them. Too many take them out when they’re alone, then find it’s too much when they wear them to a wedding or graduation. It’s all about making the hearing aid a part of your everyday life. One weakness in our field is the lack of education — I strive to educate.”

Services at Audiology Associates include diagnostic audiology, hearing aid evaluations, hearing rehabilitation, video otoscopy (a medical device used to look into the ears), tinnitus evaluations and therapy, ear wax removal, custom ear plugs, assistive listening devices and on site repairs. She also sells a broad range of hearing aids with a variety of styles for all budgets.

With hearing loss comes a breakdown of communication among family and friends, and that can be extremely isolating, added Barros.

When Nevada City artist and writer Ron Rodecker noticed he was losing his hearing, he was hesitant to spend money on a hearing aid.

“I started wearing one that had been my good friend’s dead mother-in-law’s,” he said. “It didn’t really work, but I went in to Audiology Associates to get a new battery and they were so sweet. As I was headed out the door, I had an epiphany — these are good people; maybe I should bite the bullet and get a state-of-the-art hearing aid. It was amazing to finally be able to hear conversations again. I can’t emphasize enough the isolation you experience when you can’t hear people.”

That was two years ago, and Rodecker jokes that it has done wonders for his marriage.

“Well, my wife’s still with me if that’s any indication — I don’t have to keep saying, ‘What? What?’ Before, each time she repeated a comment there was a little bit more of an edge — it was geometrically progressive,” he joked.

Rodecker’s story is an example of why Barros says she loves her job.

“I love what I do and love helping people,” she said. “Seeing the smile on someone’s face when they are finally able to hear is so rewarding. It makes my heart big.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.

Music to my ears: audiologist Sol Barros and the joy of sound

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