Sign of the Times: RTE's Caroline Worthington
When Caroline Worthington was a child, she lost her hearing, she tells Joy Orpen. Despite the challenges, she leads a full life, while the icing on the cake, apart from her upcoming nuptials, is signing the weather on RTE
As a four-and-a-half-year-old child, Caroline Worthington was on track, achieving all the usual milestones.
She was a pretty child who was undoubtedly spoiled by her older brothers in their comfortable home in Raheny in north Dublin. Then, one breezy summer's day, her father took her to Dun Laoghaire and just 24 hours later, Caroline was deaf. It truly was a bolt from the blue, as her hearing had been fine until then. She recalls the day her silence became obvious to others.
"I was in the garden playing, when Mam called me in for lunch. When I did not respond after a few more calls, she came out and realised I had not heard her at all. Our doctor said the deafness was temporary -that it was probably due to a cold and I'd be fine in a few days. But I wasn't, so Mam decided I needed to see a specialist," Caroline says.
After several visits to the doctor and to two specialists, Caroline was referred to the audiology clinic at St Mary's School for Deaf Girls in Cabra, Dublin, where it was confirmed she was suffering from a profound hearing loss. But no one seemed to know why.
Her father wondered if the visit to Dun Laoghaire had triggered the event.
"We were there with family members who were going to London to see a match. While they stood talking, my brother and I were running around the place. There was a strong breeze blowing and my Dad thinks I might have picked up an infection," Caroline explains. "There is also the possibility I had an underlying virus, but apparently I never displayed any other symptoms."
Caroline says, in the early stages, her family was naturally deeply disturbed by her sudden deafness. "My mam struggled at the beginning," she says. "I think she found it hard to accept it was a permanent condition, because it had come so completely out of the blue. We went to faith healers and we went to Lourdes and Knock, but it didn't work out."
At the time of the initial diagnosis, Caroline was getting ready for "big school". She had seen her big brothers head out into the world and, now that her uniform had already been bought, she was eager for this experience too. But, her parents had a difficult decision to make - should they send her to a mainstream school or to one that catered for children with hearing difficulties? In the end they decided on St Mary's and Caroline has no regrets in this regard. "The first day was the same as for anyone else starting out. I didn't want to be left in a strange place. But after that, I loved it," she says. "The classes were small and the teachers were qualified to teach the deaf, so I got a fantastic education. I was with a great group of girls all the way through and enjoyed my school days."
Soon after the original diagnosis, Caroline had been fitted with a hearing aid and that gave her partial hearing. Over the course of the following years, she learned to lip read and studied Irish Sign Language (ISL).
At secondary school, Caroline's teacher, Terri Broderick, inspired her to pursue a career in education. "I enjoyed her class so much, I decided to become a teacher myself," she says. So she eventually enrolled at UCD where she did an arts degree in English and history. But it wasn't an easy adjustment for her. "When I was a teenager, I was confident because I was with my own circle of friends at school who had hearing problems," she says. "But at UCD, I was on my own. I didn't want people knowing I was deaf. I could have had a language interpreter, but I felt that would have been too much. I did have a note taker, but that wasn't quite the same. So I struggled through my degree."
However, Caroline then went on to do a post-graduate diploma in equality studies and this time she did it differently. "I began to feel more empowered, so I then accepted whatever supports were available to me." Caroline also did a post-graduate diploma in education at TCD.
About seven years ago she had a cochlear implant (CI). According to Dr Laura Viani from Beaumont Hospital where the operation was performed, a CI is a "highly sophisticated device, which provides access to sound for people with severe-to-profound hearing loss. The surgically-implanted device, when coupled to an external processor, can provide access to speech and everyday sounds to aid or improve communication abilities."
Caroline says that although the procedure only took about three hours, she had to wait for six weeks for the device to be switched on and, even then, the results were not ideal. "It took about three weeks before I could make sense of the new sounds," she says. "Now I can understand what people say to me as long as I can read their lips and see their expressions as well."
And so Caroline's life is moving along at a nice, steady pace. She is now a teacher at St Mary's three days a week and is engaged to Jamie Wilson (36) a development officer at the Football Association of Ireland.
She says she likes the older, "cheesy" music of groups like the Spice Girls and is a big fan of Imelda May. "I love her lyrics - I'd love her to sing at my wedding," she says.
So Caroline has her hands full, but perhaps her most consuming activity right now is signing the weather and the news on RTE. She and her best friend Sarah Jane Moloney share the responsibility for this role. Caroline says that three of the regular weather forecasters have been taught ISL so they can understand where Caroline and Sarah are in the scripts during recordings. "I was terrified at the beginning," she admits.
"My first day was with Karina Buckley and she was so positive and so reassuring. I believe we were the first country ever to sign the weather. We get a lot of attention in the deaf community, but I don't get fan mail and I've never been recognised out on the street," she says.
Caroline says that one of the perks of the job is getting all dolled up. "I'm into clothes and fashion, so the best part of the job for me is getting my hair and make-up done. It's great to be working at RTE if you're going out on the town afterwards."
And what's next in store? Caroline says she'd love to have a segment signing language on a "bigger show" like The Late Late. Ryan Tubridy, are you paying attention?
St Mary's School for Deaf Girls, Dominican Convent, Cabra D7, tel: (01) 838-5359, or see stmarysdeafgirls.ie