PINELLAS PARK, Florida -- Most kids don't have to deal with the rapid change that Joey Sleppy was blindsided by. A regular baseball-loving, wild-about-life kid goes to bed as usual, but wakes up without his sense of hearing.
The fear is enough to bring a family to its knees.
When Sleppy was just a few years old, his hearing began to deteriorate. Born with misshapen inner ears, his sense of hearing began to fail him. One Saturday morning, he woke up in his Pinellas Park home to complete silence.
It looked like little could be done to reverse the tragic, sudden loss of hearing, but his parents were determined to do anything it took to give their youngest of three children another chance to hear.
After many months of searching for doctors, examining their options, and checking with specialists, the Sleppys were referred to Dr. Loren Bartels in Tampa, a man at the top of the profession when it comes to audiology. It was determined that Joey was a candidate for cochlear implants. Small devices could be implanted in his head that could give Joey a 50-50 shot at hearing again.
See photos of Joey's journey here
"A big decision for me was to agree to the surgery," said Joey's dad, Bob, an engineer by trade. "Everyone wants it to work. You hope it works. But, if it doesn't work, your kid will never hear again because the process of the surgery, whatever natural, God-given ability that was in that ear was destroyed in the process of implanting the cochlear implant."
After long days of discussion and prayer, the Sleppys opted to try the surgery out on just one of the sense-less ears. If it worked, Joey would have one ear that worked. If it didn't, at least there was still one more ear that could be operated on later in life if some other option became available.
Doctor Bartels' crew of surgeons, audiologists, and ear experts helped restore Joey's hearing through a series of surgeries. Both ears were eventually repaired, and the now middle-school aged sports nut could hear again.
Before the surgeries took, Joey became very interested in sports. He could watch his favorite sport, baseball, and follow along with or without closed captioning on the TV screen. He could recall everything that happened in the game. His favorite team is the New York Yankees. He and his dad often go to watch them play against the Rays at Tropicana Field.
Joey eventually made his way onto the little league field. Concerned about the possibility that he'd be hit in the head with a ball, his parents were somewhat hesitant to let him try. They let him try it out, though, and he excelled. Above all odds, he was succeeding after his outlook seemed so dim.
"It gives me a great sense of fulfillment to see these kids doing so well," Dr. Bartels said this week from his office at Tampa General Hospital.
The procedures changed Joey's life. He went from a world of lip reading and needing to be homeschooled to a normal, hearing life. The transformation was incredible for everyone involved.
"I know what these kids are like when they don't get implants and when they don't understand speech and when they have behavior problems because they don't understand and they get made fun of," said Bartels. "So, when I see these kids speaking normally and using normal language inflection and conversing normally among other kids, you realize that you have taken a kid who had potential to have major language problems all of their life and you have given them a chance to essentially be normal functionally."
On the final game of the following little league season, Joey hit a walkoff two-run homerun to win the championship game. He got to take the winning ball home with him, but he didn't keep it. He gave it to Dr. Bartels on his next visit.
Tears welled up in the doctor's eyes as he looked at it this week, now a decade later. The ball is still prominently displayed in his office, next to his prestigious medical awards, diplomas, and shelves of audiology literature. The gift, he said, is one of his most cherished possessions.
Sports were always a big part of Joey's life. Eventually, his older siblings got him into swimming. As a freshman at Osceola High School, he made the team.
"I wasn't very good," he admitted. "But, I got better."
He earned district runner-up honors this past weekend. The remarkable thing about his swimming career is how he is forced to compete in the pool.
The miracle devices that saved his sense of hearing are not waterproof. Every time he gets into the pool, he has to "take off his ears". He is, essentially, deaf again.
"When it comes time to compete, I've been talking to people and I'm just used to it," Joey said at practice. "I take my ears off. People on the team have started recognizing when you take your ears off, that kid can't hear any more."
A flash bulb on the side of the pool is synced up with the sound of a starting horn. When the other kids hear the horn, Joey sees the light, and dives in the pool. He even jokes that the light gives him a tiny advantage.
"Light travels faster than sound," he said with a smile.
He likes swimming and likes competing. He's also getting involved in lacrosse and loves that, too. He can't hear the cheers from the crowd during swim races, but he said he knows they are there. His parents beam with pride from the stands. Mom captures everything on her video camera. Dad's eyes stay glued on his 16-year-old fighter.
Joey has had plenty of chances to quit, but never gave up on himself or his chances. Not on his ears and never in the pool.
"They tell me I'm their hero now," Joey said of his parents. "So, I guess I made them proud."
He's making a lot of people proud, both in and out of the pool.