Bloomfield teen doesn't let deafness affect her cheering

Friday, February 18, 2011 | 5:31 p.m. CST; updated 11:00 a.m. CST, Saturday, February 19, 2011
Torrie Baker, 17, poses for a photo Feb. 3 in Bloomfield. Baker has overcome a severe hearing impairment and as a Bloomfield High School junior, is a member of the cheerleading squad and dance team.

BLOOMFIELD — When the Bloomfield High School cheerleaders take to the gym floor to perform one of their crowd-pleasing dance routines, the dance is flawless. The girls move with exact precision as their dance music fills the gymnasium. Their movements are precise, the result of endless hours of rehearsing.

The team has won dozens of awards over the years for their precision and expertise. Their traditional purple and gold uniforms are identical from head to toe, and their similar hairstyles are held in place with their Bloomfield gold bows.

One of the cheerleaders is very different from her counterparts, though. Torrie Baker is deaf. When she takes to the floor, she hears almost nothing. And yet, she never misses a beat. She performs in perfect sync with the rest of the squad.

When the now 17-year-old high school junior was in middle school, she dreamed of one day being a Bloomfield cheerleader.

"She thought of nothing else," her mother, Lorrie Duckworth, said. "She wanted more than anything to be on the cheerleading squad."

When she was going into the seventh grade, Torrie tried out for the team but didn't make the cut. She was heartbroken but determined to try again for her eighth grade year.

"She worked so hard at making the squad, and her hard work paid off," her mother said. "She made the team."

But when Torrie entered high school, the competition was stiff. She failed to get a spot on the freshmen cheer team. Undaunted, when her sophomore year came, she tried once more, but it was not meant to be.

The triple defeat only served to make the junior try harder. Following her sophomore defeat, Torrie was on a mission. She attended every basketball game; and using her cell phone, she video recorded every move of every cheer and dance.

"She played those over and over and over," her mother said, "and then she'd practice the moves just as the girls had done them."

At the start of the current school year, Torrie once again appeared for tryouts. She went through the routines before the judges and held her breath, as did her parents. When the results were in, she had accomplished her goal. She made the squad.

Accomplishments for Torrie Baker have never come as easily as they have for most. She has succeeded with a seldom-seen determination and a lot of perseverance.

Torrie was the firstborn in her family of three children. It became evident when she was less than a year old that she was not progressing as her parents expected.

"We had her to doctor after doctor, and finally she was diagnosed with a syndrome called Floppy Muscle Disorder, which meant she did not sit up or crawl as quickly as other babies. She performed about two years behind most children."

Totally unrelated to the syndrome, doctors also realized Torrie had a hearing loss. Her speech had not progressed, and she was not responding appropriately to voice commands. It was discovered when she was about 2 years old that Torrie had no hearing at all in her right ear and less than 50-percent capacity on the left side.

"We were referred to two specialists in Cape," her mother said. "And Torrie was eventually fitted with a hearing aid for her left ear."

While the aid didn't bring Torrie's hearing level up to 100 percent, it did make a dramatic difference in her daily life. She began attending preschool in the Bloomfield system and working with Speech Therapist Tara Mouser. Certain letters were not clearly heard by Torrie, and it was evident in her speech pattern. Mouser worked with Torrie through her elementary career.

"As I watched Torrie dance with the cheerleaders at the Christmas Tournament," Mousersaid, "My mind went back to kindergarten when she struggled to even hear sounds. I shed a few proud tears. Torrie has always been very dear to my heart. I always held her to very high standards because I knew that one day she would be able to do whatever she set her mind to do."

Mouser credits Jason and Lorrie Duckworth for Torrie's perseverance. "Her mother always told me that 'can't' is not an option until she tries. She is what she is today because of her will to succeed but also because she had parents who never give up on her."

When she was 11 years old and in the fifth grade, the Duckworths made a decision that would forever change the life of their daughter.

They opted, with Torrie's approval, for a cochlear implant.

"It was a major decision," Torrie's stepfather said. "If the surgery does not work, the patient is not a candidate for any other surgery. That's one of the reasons that the implants are only performed on profoundly deaf patients where there is no other option."

A cochlear implant is a small, complex electronic device that can help to provide a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hearing impaired. The implant consists of an external portion that sits behind the ear and a second portion that is surgically placed under the skin. The implant has a microphone, a speech processor, a transmitter and an electrode array, which is a group of electrodes that collects the impulses from the stimulator and sends them to different regions of the auditory nerve.

The surgery was performed at Children's Hospital in St. Louis. Torrie remembers the day.

"It really hurt," she said of the recovery period. "They actually turned up the volume of the implant a little bit at a time until it was regulated so that it's not such a shock. I just remember everything seemed so loud."

The original implant is what will remain implanted under Torrie's scalp for the rest of her life. As improvements are made, the device that is worn around the back of her right ear is accommodated, not the device that was surgically placed under her scalp.

"I remember loving the sound of flip-flops," she smiles, and said in a distinct voice that barely reveals her impairment. "I had never heard them before. And I loved being able to hear my own voice in my head. It was summertime when I had the surgery and I was wearing flip-flops. I could hear my own footsteps, and I could hear my own voice for the first time ever and I loved it."

The adjustment to the hearing world was not an automatic or an easy one. Although she could now hear, the sounds were not the sounds to which the hearing world is accustomed.

"The sounds Torrie hears are more of a robotic tone," explains her mother. "It took a while to discern between my voice and the voice of her siblings — it's not the sound that we hear when we hear others speak, but she adjusted to it."

The device is a delicate one — so delicate that Torrie cannot take the chance of damaging it during cheerleading. While she participates in what she most loves to do and what is perhaps her greatest accomplishment, Torrie has to remove the exterior portion of the implant that takes her back to the deaf world. She is reliant upon her friends and her inner signals to proceed through the drills in an amazing display of rhythm and grace.

Indeed, she has adjusted so well that as a junior in high school, she is an honor roll student who is also an active member of BETA and Pep Club. Perhaps Torrie's cheerleading coach, Kim Fox, said it best.

"It goes without saying she has to work twice as hard but she has never complains. To watch her face while she cheers says it all. She's my hero."

The enthusiastic and always-positive junior has college plans with a goal of someday becoming a first grade teacher. Who better to teach the very young than one who spent 17 years teaching others where patience, endurance, perseverance and determination will lead.

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