The remarkable story of Thomaston’s Ava Harkness

THOMASTON – The big deal is that it is no big deal. Not for Ava Harkness. If you have ever watched the Thomaston High junior rage around the basketball court an indefatigable explosion of energy with street corner toughness it doesn’t surprise. It you haven’t seen Harkness play know this, she has reduced a potentially debilitating condition to a minor irritant at best.

Harkness plays with cochlear implants. Without them she cannot hear, completely deaf. The implants are small electronic devices that electrically stimulate the cochlear nerves (for hearing). The implants are actually a two-part system. An external part that sits behind the ear and picks up sound with a microphone and then processes the sound, transmitting  it to the internal part under the skin behind the ear. A thin wire and electrodes send signals to the cochlear nerve which send sound information to the brain to produce hearing sensation. All of which increases sound awareness and makes lip reading and listening easier.

Playing with the implants allows Harkness to perform under similar conditions as her teammates and opponents and in her case at a higher level than many.  But, there are still challenges.

While Harkness is a standout on the soccer and softball fields along with the basketball court it is the winter season that provides the biggest obstacle.

“I play with the implants through all sports but it is harder in the gym because there are more people in an enclosed place,” Harkness said.

While Harkness appreciates the roar of the crowd and hears plenty of it playing for a renowned program that is the current defending Class S state champion and three-time defending Berkshire League champion and draws huge crowds, it doesn’t always make it easy.

“It’s hard knowing what the plays are,” said Harkness who keeps the external part of the device in place with a hair band. “I try to tell my teammates to repeat the plays and then I tell Kelly (JV coach Finlay) to repeat them. “

When Thomaston coach Brian Mozelak or a player is calling out a play, Finlay connects with Harkness on the court through a digital modulation device with a blinking light that she wears around her neck.  

“Ava can hear but it is more difficult in the gym with the noise,” Finlay explained. “I turn on the device and it goes directly to her. The coach calls the play and I tell Ava at the same time.  Some games are more frustrating than others because of the noise. We also tell the teammates to speak louder.”

Harkness averages 12 points and 10 rebounds a game so she is getting the message and delivering her message.

Harkness is also helped by the fact that she is an excellent lip-reader, an essential on the court and in daily life in classes and with friends and family.  Covid-19 did its best to neutralize the ability when masks were the norm and mouths were covered further emphasizing the importance of the implants.

The cochlear implants were particularly essential during the Golden Bears run to the Class S state title last season.  With bigger gyms and bigger, boisterous crowds, hearing increasingly became difficult. However, even the best electronic devices have their limitations.

The loud speaker in the cavernous Mohegan Sun arena interfered with the hearing device.

“I was not even able to use the microphone that connects to the hearing aid,” Harkness said. “So I shut it off. I pretty much knew the plays and used mouth reading on the court. We also used hand signals.”

In the semifinals at New Britain High School against Bolton, the device proved to be advantageous for a reason opposite of its purpose. Harkness used her technology to shut out the noise.

“I turned the processors off during foul shots so it was quiet,” Harkness said.

Oh, and there is a lighter side that the cochlear implants provide when she is on the court.

“Kelly tells me jokes during the game,” Harkness revealed.  “If you see me laughing, Kelly has said something funny to me.”

Harkness a 17-year-old junior is a veteran of her hearing loss situation. The loss of sound was picked up fairly early by her parents, Kim and Keith, and she has been dealing with the challenges almost since birth.                                                                                                                                                                                           

“Around the age of two she wasn’t talking right and her language was not where it should have been,” her mother Kim said. “She was not responding to prompts. We even played a toy symbol that clapped and she did not respond in an audiology test. “

“I just remember my parents would do hand signals so I could comprehend,” Harkness said.  “There were bits and pieces of sign language in there.”

Hearing aids were the next step but after a short period it was clear that Harkness was not getting enough benefit. When further hearing loss was detected at the age of five in 2010 it was determined that surgery for the cochlear implants was the best alternative and one side was done followed by a second surgery on the other side in 2012.

“I was really not aware of what they were doing,” Harkness said. “I remember the anesthesia and that my head was hurting really bad. It was two weeks before they turned the (first) implant on and it was like whoa I was hearing sounds for the first time. I heard one of my parents’ voices and it was weird.  I realized it helped me.”

Pre-school in Thomaston and work with Soundbridge, a regional program in Wethersfield for children with hearing loss who are using spoken language to communicate, worked with Harkness to develop speech and with foundations of listening skills.

Throughout her scholastic career Harkness has received services assisting her in speech and listening skills, knowledge of laws for the hearing impaired and currently, self-advocacy and what colleges have for services as she nears the end of her high school days.

The challenges remain off the courts and fields and Harkness just rolls along and rolls right through them. Teachers have the same devices as Finlay wears and Harkness is a High Honors student. At home she watches television with closed captions. Her processors connect with her phone.

If she is swimming, she has water-proof processors.  Harkness does admit, talking in the car can be difficult because she can’t always see faces to read lips.

Ava Harkness lives in a world of both sound and silence. Modern technology has given her noise, life’s fortunes have given her silence. She hears the roar of the crowd, without the technology she hears most of her thoughts in her brain. She thrives in both worlds, she thrives in her world with both conditions.

“She is the toughest kid I’ve seen,” said Mozelak. “She deals with a disability and doesn’t make excuses for anything.  She gets knocked down, she gets back up.”

Ava Harkness has never backed down, she has always stepped up. She has always heard the challenges and she always answers the call.

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