COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — As 2020 comes to a close, many are calling it “the worst year ever.” But during a time where it may be hard to remember the things we are thankful for, one young Colorado Springs girl is reminding us that we have more than we realize.
Ten-year-old Zahara Swegle is blind, deaf and full of joy, despite an isolating start to her life.
“She was living in an orphanage in China. She had no communication method whatsoever,” said Julie Swegle, Zahara’s adoptive mother.
For the first seven years of Zahara’s life, she couldn’t talk to anybody.
“We just couldn’t imagine living in a world where you couldn’t give your opinion, you couldn’t ask for what you wanted,” said Julie.
Her story was heard loud and clear, though, by Julie and her husband Brian, all the way across the globe in Colorado Springs.
“As soon as we met her we were in love with her,” said Julie.
Julie, who is a teacher at the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind, said she and her husband had long talked about adopting a child who was blind, but they didn’t expect it to happen so soon.
“When we saw her story and started seeing videos and pictures of her, it just, felt this connection,” said Brian Swegle. “And it just kind of grew from there. It was one of those, we were just thinking what can we do for this girl? And it just really quickly turned into doors opening and being able to get her.”
“She just decided right away we were her mom and dad and she was with us and she wanted nothing to do with anything else that had happened in her life before.”
For the first time in her life, Zahara had a family, and one that wanted to communicate with her.
“I remember distinctively the first time we were trying to talk to her and start signing with her and let her know that she had a name and that we had names, she just lit up. She laughed,” said Brian.
“She just laughed and laughed a lot and then she started to cry,” said Julie. “She was just feeling all of the emotions, like ‘I have a name.’ She never had a name before that she knew of, and so it was huge for her.”
And Zahara wanted to know more.
“She’s very independent. She really likes doing things on her own. She wants to constantly learn new things and try new things,” said Brian.
Both of Zahara’s eyes were removed due to cancer, but that hasn’t slowed her down one bit.
“She’s extremely independent. She’s independent even for a blind child, let alone a deaf and blind child,” said Brian.
Her parents thought Zahara was perfect just the way she was, but they said they noticed Zahara yearning for something more.
“When we met Zahara she was already trying to hear sounds,” said Julie. “She would find anything she could and bang it together as loud as she could next to her ears and really lean into it.”
So they went to Children’s Hospital Colorado Colorado Springs to learn more about cochlear implants.
“We didn’t do this for Zahara because we thought she wasn’t good enough the way she was. She was absolutely perfect the way she was and we adore her and we wouldn’t change anything about her,” said Julie. “The only reason we wanted her to have cochlears is that she wanted to hear, she demonstrated that for us, and so that she could be safer because of her blindness.”
In March, Zahara had surgery to implant a receiver into her head that would transmit sound to a processor that sits behind her ear to the hearing nerve in her brain.
“It’s similar to a hearing aid. There’s a device that sits on her ear that looks just like a hearing aid, that’s what receives the sound, but there’s a processor that’s on the back of her head in her scalp and there’s an outside thing that’s held on magnetically,” said Brian.
“That’s just a magnet and she can pull that off and take it off at night,” said Julie.
“That’s the device that sends that through her scalp and into her inner ear to transmit that sound in,” said Brian.
Both Brian and Julie were at Children’s Hospital when Zahara’s cochlears were turned on for the very first time.
“She heard clearly for the first time. It was great because her response was a lot of giggling and wiggling so it was really fun to watch,” said Julie.
Brian and Julie say the cochlears have changed Zahara’s world.
“It’s so hard to describe what has happened to her, because you couldn’t call her from across the room. If she was walking ahead of you, you couldn’t tell her to stop so that she would be safe, and now we say ‘Zahara Grace’ and she’ll say ‘that’s me,'” said Julie. “And we play games where we practice stopping when mama says stop and go when mama says go and she loves music. She’s just absolutely in love with music.”
Julie then demonstrated how Zahara loves to sign along as Julie sings.
“She went from having no language to having two languages, which is amazing,” said Julie.
The Swegles say Zahara continues to impress them and encourage them and they hope her story does the same for others too.
“We feel blessed to have her in our lives,” said Brian. “It’s not like ‘oh you guys did such a cool thing, you took this poor little deaf blind child,’ it’s like no, that’s not it at all. She is such a cool person and has enhanced our life. It’s not like we’re doing all these things we have to do to take care of her. She’s been a pure joy in what she does and who she is and just honored that she let us into her life the way she did.”