Mary Louise Kelly: How A Veteran Radio Journalist Adapts To Hearing Loss For years, NPR host Mary Louise Kelly found ways to do her job and manage hearing loss. But now she can no longer rely on reading lips or leaning-in. She describes how she's adapting all over again.

Mary Louise Kelly: How A Veteran Radio Journalist Adapts To Hearing Loss

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi.

What if your job depended on listening but you had trouble hearing?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: It's, I guess, one of the biggest ironies from the department of you could not make this up that, yes, my job is to ask people questions and then listen - like, really, really listen to the answers - and I can't really hear.

ZOMORODI: This is Mary Louise Kelly. You might recognize her voice because she is one of the hosts of NPR's All Things Considered.


SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: It's All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Sacha Pfeiffer.

KELLY: And I'm Mary Louise Kelly. Coming up in Louisville, protests are underway.

Yet another prominent conservative is urging Republicans to cross party lines.

We were out on the street here in Atlanta covering the protests when a young woman approached. She told us...

ZOMORODI: She's covered everything from the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki to life in North Korea.

Do you remember when you started losing your hearing?

KELLY: I don't know exactly when I started to have hearing loss. It's a funny thing. I think it's a little more complicated than realizing you don't have the same eyesight you did when you were 16 and you need glasses. With hearing, it's more nuanced. You don't know if you're not hearing everything that somebody else is.

In my case, I had, you know, a moment where it became undeniable. I was 42. I had just published a book. I was on book tour, and it became apparent at event after event I couldn't hear the questions. It felt like everybody was mumbling all the time. And you can ask people to repeat or speak up or, you know, I would ask, if I had a friend in the front row, to kind of relay things. But after a while, it just becomes embarrassing. And I realized I should go get this checked out, and I did.

It was humbling, in part because I still, to this day, can pass with flying colors the little minimal hearing tests that we all get with an annual physical where they say, you know, raise your hand if you hear the beep. I can hear the beep. What I can't do is distinguish between consonants. No matter how loud the volume is, I can't make out words anymore.

And when I went to the full workup at the audiologist, they did a test with me. And they said, I'm going to say a word; just repeat the word. I said OK. And it would be park bench, and I would say park bench. They would say skateboard, and I would say skateboard. And they would say purple, and I would say purple. It was fine. I didn't do great. But I think I got something like 7 or 8 out of 10. And then they repeated it - the same test...

Park bench. Park bench.

...But holding just a piece of printer paper...

Skateboard. Skateboard.

...Up in front of their lips so that I could not see the audiologist's lips move.

Purple. Purple.

And I think I got 3 out of 10. And I realized how much, without even realizing it, I had come to rely on being able to see somebody's face, being able to see their lips move. And when I can't do that, I really can't hear. And they told me I had severe to profound hearing loss, particularly at higher frequencies, which means I was missing an awful lot.

ZOMORODI: And so you got hearing aids.

KELLY: I got hearing aids, and that was a revelation. The first day I got them, everything was so loud in ways good and bad. Good ways - I'd kind of forgotten pop music had words, and I was bopping along, singing and thinking, I haven't actually heard what they were saying in I don't know how long, but it's been a while.

I realized - I was driving my kids around just doing school carpool back in the days when they actually had carpool and went to school on campus. And I realized they're chattering away - my children in the back seat - and it had just been this hum for years. I hadn't been able to hear what they were saying, and now I could listen to them. I mean, what a moment of joy.

On the flip side, I remember the first time I walked into Starbucks with hearing aids, and I burst into tears and had to walk right back out because it was so loud. I hadn't heard the coffee grinders in their full glory for years, and they're really, really loud. And so there's an adjustment as your brain relearns how to process all of those sounds and help you make sense of them.


ZOMORODI: Sound surrounds us. Some sounds inundate us and invade our ears. Others we choose to seek out. From total cacophony to the beauty of complete silence, depending on how we hear, the world can be a totally different auditory experience for each of us. And so today on the show, ideas about how we experience sound and why we also need silence to make sense of it all. And for Mary Louise, her hearing aids were a huge help. But now she's dealing with some new hurdles.

KELLY: When you have hearing loss, it's a nightmare for a couple of reasons. One is the social distancing. I'm used to being able to lean in. If I can't hear you, I'm going to get closer so that I can see your lips, so that you're louder, so that you're right in my face. And when you have to stay at least 6 feet away from somebody, you can't do it.

Then there's the terrible double whammy of masks. And I should say, for the record, I'm all for masks. I wear them. I hope everyone wears them. However, they muffle your voice - any of them - and they prevent me from seeing your lips. And those two things together conspire to make it so, so, so much harder to engage in just casual conversation or, in my case, to go out and interview somebody on the street, in the field and have any idea what you're telling me.

I had a moment where it dawned on me just how difficult this was going to be. This was late spring, that period for me in D.C. where we were past full lockdown. I could contemplate going to the local CVS. But I had to pick up a prescription for my youngest son. So I masked up. I brought my hand sanitizer. I had the prescription. I was all set to go just in and out.

And obstacle No. 1, there's Plexiglas everywhere separating me from the pharmacist. So, OK, there's a sound barrier right there - hard to hear. And then we're both wearing masks. And the most simple transaction, you know, two blocks from my house became so difficult. I come in. I tell them, I'm here to pick up a refill for my son. And he looks at me and says, mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble, or at least that's what I'm hearing.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

KELLY: And I'm thinking, OK, logically, he's probably asking for my son's name and birth date. So I tell him that. And the pharmacist - I can see his eyes, and he's giving me this kind of weird look. And he mumbles again. And I think, OK, what else would he need? And I pull my insurance card from my wallet, hold it up.

He gives me another weird look. He starts speaking more slowly. He gets the bored look that a lot of people who are hard of hearing are familiar with. And I get it. It's frustrating to talk when the other person isn't understanding you. And I can't decipher a single word. And we go through this, you know, pantomime for a few minutes. And finally, he leans back and says, what is the phone number on file for your son? And I say, oh. And I give him the phone number.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

KELLY: And, you know, five minutes later, I left. I got the medicine. It's all fine. I just remember going out, standing on the sidewalk and feeling scared and defeated.


KELLY: I'm thinking, I cannot manage to pick up a prescription refill at our neighborhood drugstore. How am I going to do my job? It was a moment that gave me great pause. And, you know, you can stand there and feel sorry for yourself for a little while. And then you figure out, OK, how am I going to do this? And that has been the story of my summer - has been figuring out, how do I still do this?

ZOMORODI: Where are you on answering that question?

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, obviously, I find ways to do it. I anchor a national news show despite the fact that I have significant hearing loss, and I'm doing it with hearing aids. You find ways to make it work. I have never as an anchor, as a host on NPR, found my hearing a handicap just doing daily interviews for the show. And I think one reason for that is context is everything when you're only catching every second or third word. It helps to know what I'm talking about. And, you know, none of it is easy, but there's always a way, or at least I hope so. That's the plan.

ZOMORODI: That's Mary Louise Kelly. You can hear her almost every day on NPR's All Things Considered.

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