Hearing with her heart

Lori Katterhagen stands with her son Matt, 14, outside their Gilroy home.

Lori Katterhagen’s world fell silent when she was 30 years old.

Waking up each morning over the course of one week in September 1998 to realize her condition had only worsened was “very, very scary,” said Lori, who is now 43 and directs the medical, surgical and pediatric units at Saint Louise Regional Hospital in Gilroy.

“I could hear the wind,” she recalled, describing the “paralyzing” experience of gradually losing 80 percent of her hearing in her left ear. “I remember being able to hear the wind.”

It’s not like Katterhagen – a married mother of one who was working as a critical care nurse in Tri-Cities, Wash., at the time – had a spare part to fall back on. For reasons still unknown, her right ear went totally deaf by the time she turned 5. Doctors still aren’t sure what triggered the loss of hearing in her left ear, either.

“I remember hearing during that week, ‘You’re a very unusual case,’” said Lori, who moved to Gilroy in 2001 when her husband, Greg, got a job at Alien Technology in Morgan Hill. “And I thought, ‘that makes me feel really good. Thank you so much.’”

Her confidence “shattered,” Lori stopped working. She wouldn’t go to the grocery store. She limited her social circle to family and few close friends. She “hated” talking on the phone.

“I thought maybe I could work in the post office,” she mused. “I didn’t want to have any interaction with people.”

For the effervescent people-person who has a way of making you feel like an old friend, the thought of Katterhagen retreating into an unsociable lifestyle seems contradictory to the fiber of her being.

With a cheery attitude, a subtly mischievous sense of humor, cerulean eyes and a head spilling with golden ringlets that complement her sunshiny personality, it’s hard to imagine Lori was born to do anything other than brighten people’s lives.

To the benefit of Saint Louise, its staff and patients, losing one of her senses didn’t permanently sideline Lori from continuing as a nurse – a vocation she describes as her “identity.” Rather, Lori – who knows sign language but communicates hands-free thanks to powerful hearing aid – found success through self empowerment while negotiating physical and emotional minefields.

Lori was recognized Thursday during the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal Health Care Heroes awards, a “prestigious” honor highlighting the top men and women in the Silicon Valley health care industry via an annual publication and event. The awards commend doctors, nurses, CEOs and researchers who have improved the way the health system works in the Valley’s hospitals, labs, start-ups, nonprofits and universities, according to the organization’s website. Out of 10 finalist groups, Lori was named winner of the “nurse” category.

Her nomination was submitted several months ago by Marilyn Gerrior, vice president chief nurse executive at Saint Louise, hospital CEO Joanne Allen and Patricia Smith, public relations manager for the Daughters of Charity Health System that includes Saint Louise.

Gerrior coins Lori as an “extraordinary person” who has never made her disability “an issue” when it comes to setting the bar high.

Not that Lori is one to toot her own horn.

The native Canadian vehemently praises her “fabulous” Saint Louise colleagues almost as much as she gushes about her only son, Matthew. The 14-year-old currently attends Monte Vista High School in Watsonville.

When Lori lost the hearing in her right ear, her paramount “fear” was that “I wouldn’t be able to hear my kid talk,” she said, tearing up and leaving her seat to grab a tissue.

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, though.

“Now I can’t get him to shut up,” she jokes of Matthew, a “sociable” chatterbox just like his mom.

Thanks to Lori’s $3,000 hearing aid and medical technology that constantly improves, her fear never materialized.

“I’m very blessed where I am,” she smiles, looking sprightly in a sparkly lime green shirt and matching bracelet. “Life can be ironic, but I am in a good place. I don’t feel like I’m limited anymore.”

Lori enrolled at Gavilan College after moving to Gilroy, eventually progressing to San Jose State University where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing education. Lori began working as a per diem (on-call) nurse at Saint Louise, where she now oversees 106 employees – in addition to teaching the occasional class at Gavilan while working toward a doctorate in nursing practice at the University of San Francisco.

“No challenge is too big for her,” said Gerrior. “She really tackles everything that comes along and masters it and moves on to the next hill … I asked her the other day, ‘Do you sleep very much?’”

The answer is yes – save for the occasional kick Lori gets from her husband, Greg, the middleman who gives his wife (she sleeps without her hearing aid) a gentle prod when Saint Louise calls in the dead of night.

Lori depicts her significant other as a supportive spouse who adapted alongside his wife; learning sign language and helping her glide through social scenarios where the auditory factor is on overload.

“My husband will look at me and go, ‘you didn’t get that at all, did you,’” she giggles, reflecting on the difficulty of following one conversation in a room filled with multiple people talking over one another. “If I’m in a crowd, I’m very good at faking it. It’s more of a politeness thing.”

Her lighthearted outlook draws from years spent adjusting to life with a hearing aid, a device that doesn’t discriminate when it comes to intensifying every little noise.

“Hearing aids don’t just amplify conversations. They amplify everything around you. It’s just like a cacophony of sound,” Lori said.

After working for Hospice in Tri-Cities, Wash. for two years before moving to Gilroy, Lori said reintegrating herself into the buzzing hospital atmosphere was an adjustment.

“I’ve had some interesting flub-ups,” she chuckles. “Somebody will talk to me at work, and I’ll say, ‘Oh, frog’s legs?’ And they’ll go, ‘what?’”

It’s this combination of down-to-earth demeanor, and an intense passion for her profession and ongoing drive to push her career to new heights, that makes colleagues such as Saint Louise Data Specialist Diana Molina look up to her boss.

“She’s awesome. She hits everything head on,” said Molina, who has worked with Lori for more than two years.

Despite the conundrum that still enshrouds the loss of her hearing – plus the fact Lori will have to get a cochlear implant in the event her condition gets any worse – the world is clearly her oyster.

“Yes, I have this disability. Yes, it is a challenge. I just have to work a little harder to overcome it,” she said. “It’s been great to be able to go through that. There’s always going to be ‘what ifs,’ – and I can’t second-guess that.”

Leave your comments