Audiologist gives final moments to patient’s family

At 94 years old, Mary Blitchington didn’t want much. Loving family surrounded her and she filled her life with music and her church.

But hearing loss plagued her, separating her from the music with which she had spent her life. So on her Christmas “wish list,” she asked that the pair of hearing aids she lost be replaced. A few days before Christmas 2010, she met with Dr. Angela Gerbasi, an audiologist with the MCGHealth Skull Base Center, to be fitted with new hearing aids.

“My family and I will never forget her many kindnesses. She went far beyond the expected,” said her daughter, Barbara Graybill.

Blitchington wasn’t the ideal patient. Extreme scoliosis shaved a foot off her five-foot-two frame, and her ears were so small that they required pediatric instruments.

“To make matters worse, she went to sleep during the procedure, and the longer she slept, the more she slumped and her head tilted forward,” Graybill said. “By the time it was all done, Dr. Gerbasi and an auditory doctoral student who assisted were both kneeling on the floor, each working on one ear. I remember being overwhelmed at both their patience and ingenuity.”

Gerbasi all but shrugged off the praise.

“Our job is to do whatever we need to do to get whatever we need to get,” she said. “Some of our older patients do get a little sleepy, or they may have some back issues. We don’t really have a lot of equipment to get a patient up high, so there’s a lot of improvising in how to get in, get close and get things done appropriately.”

The hearing aids were scheduled to arrive in a few weeks. But about a week after the appointment, Blitchington was hospitalized to be treated for low sodium levels. By Jan. 5, the family was given a grim prognosis and they moved her to palliative care. Blitchington’s health had deteriorated to the point where she was unresponsive to people and events around her.

But the hearing aids arrived early. When Gerbasi heard about her patient’s failing health, she brought the devices to the hospital room and fitted them herself.

“I just put myself in their shoes, and they had a lot on their plate,” Gerbasi said. “They are the kindest and the sweetest people. I had to at least do what they would have done for me.”

She stayed with the family and chatted for a couple of hours. Blitchington’s daughters talked to their mother, and her great-niece granddaughter sang to her. But despite the new aids, the family saw no indication that Blitchington understood her surroundings.

The next day, though, Graybill asked her mother to squeeze her hand. Her mother’s hand closed around hers. This repeated several times. Later she opened her eyes for Graybill’s sister, Brenda.

“This was confirmation that the hearing aids had allowed her to hear us the night before and had provided us that final time together,” Graybill said. It’s comforting knowledge for the family, she said.

“I would not even be able to begin to describe to you how amazing it is to be able to give that gift to somebody and know that they were able to communicate with their loved one,” Gerbasi said.

Blitchington died Jan. 11.

Gerbasi attended calling hours at the funeral home, and even visited with the family at their home afterwards. She said she was deeply affected by the stories they told about Blitchington’s life and work. Graybill said her mother once tried to count all the piano students she taught over the years, but stopped counting at 1,500. She was an Organist and Director of Choirs for Grace United Methodist Church for almost five decades. She was still singing in the choir last spring.

“She was just an amazing lady. How many lives she touched, how many people she affected,” Gerbasi said.

Graybill said the same of Gerbasi: “She was incredible. Her thoughtfulness and caring will never be forgotten.”

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