Florence Henderson: The story many never knew

     “Although Florence Henderson’s otosclerosis was apparently treated at a time that enabled her to benefit more than me, her picture as well as those staring out from those frames in my surgeon’s office reminded me that my former doctor was wrong in telling me that I would be unemployable by the age of 50. I was 45 years old at the time, and the stapedectomy served me well for another ten years until I received my first cochlear implant. ” mw

florence_henderson_3Photocredit:  By Greg Hernandez, CC By 2.o (https://commons.wikimedia.org)

Like many Americans, I was shocked to learn this morning that Florence Henderson had passed away.  She was health-oriented, slender and a seemingly ageless beauty.  Her time on The Brady Bunch seemed to make her the eternal “mom” in her orange kitchen for those who are part of Generation X.  But her life touched mine in a way she will never know.  Like me, she had otosclerosis and she led a proactive example of how we can focus on solutions rather than problems.  She continued to perform, despite the hearing loss few knew of.

In this condition, the bones in the inner ear called the stapes, anvil and the hammer become “arthritic” and stop stimulating sound.  In addition, the tiny bones break and form blockages in the ear canal.  This condition is more prevalent in young women of child-bearing age, but still, there are many men who develop this condition.  It is often hereditary, although many bypass inheriting this condition.

img_2804

Photo from http://www.nih.gov

For over a decade, I entrusted my hearing healthcare to one doctor for my healthcare.  A huge mistake. He ended up being the head ENT doctor at a regional hospital so I trusted he was a pro.  He told me there was no hope for me and that I would be “unemployable” by the time I was 50 years old.  I remember feeling like I wanted to scream and vomit at the same time.  The truth was the Americans with Disabilities Act was about to be signed and there was already an operation called a stapedectomy which could have helped me.  The otosclerosis continued to permeate my ears and damage my hearing.

Then one day a friend with hearing loss recommended that I try her audiologist located on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.  Melanie drove me to his office on a crowded Bronx street with cars double parked, — a neighborhood I remembered visiting as a child with my parents for school clothes at the famed Alexander’s.  Richard Cortez, M.S. was a kind and intelligent man.  As my hearing declined, he witnessed many visits that ended with sobs and resistance to acceptance of my new “self.”
One day, Richard Cortez asked me if I ever heard of an operation called a stapedectomy where an artificial stapes is placed in the ear canal.  I hadn’t.  He gave me a small card with the name Alan Austin Scheer, MD.  He assured me if there was any hope of helping me, this man could.

Dr. Scheer was considered “the” doctor to see for stapedectomies, and he even patented the prosthesis device that would later be inserted in my left ear.  As I entered his office uptown on Park Avenue, I noticed a” wall of fame” containing pictures of celebrities he had operated on. People like me who had otosclerosis.  Florence Henderson was the first to catch my eye.  Then Lorne Greene and others.  Below the pictures was a tapestry of Biblical quotes a woman had put together as a gift of gratitude for his work.

The quote that always stayed in my mind was “…and in that day, the deaf shall hear…”  Isaiah 29:18-20.

Although Florence Henderson’s otosclerosis was apparently treated at a time that enabled her to benefit more than me, her picture and as well as those staring out from those frames on the dedicated “wall of fame”  reminded me that my former doctor was wrong in telling me that I would be unemployable by the age of 50.  I was 45 years old at the time, and the stapedectomy served me well for another ten years until I received my first cochlear implant.  Today, many people with the same condition would probably be treated with Cochlear’s BAHA or a cochlear implant.  And to stress my point, Florence Henderson continued to thrive for decades after receiving her bilateral stapedectomies.  After her operation, Florence Henderson formed a longtime association with the famed House Ear Institute as well as many other charities.

To me, Florence Henderson  put a face on this little-known condition called otosclerosis and I thank her for that.  To me, it was not a “wall of fame” in the end, but a wall of hope.  Despite the fact that her death has come as a shock, she knew how to live well.  May she rest in peace.