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Local lawyer sees hearing loss as an opportunity

Steve Phillips, Park Record contributing writerMelissa Pignatelli-O'Brien volunteers twice a month as a mediator at the Summit County small-claims court. "If you want me to be able to work well with you, you need to look at me and speak very clearly," sh

A lawyer by profession, she’s on hiatus from her practice while rearing a family.

"I wanted to keep a toe in the legal water, so I took a mediation course in Salt Lake City and volunteer up here," says Pignatelli-O’Brien. "Small-claims court can be intimidating for some people. I think they appreciate the service I provide. It’s ironic, I tell my husband. I don’t like conflict in my own life, but I’m okay helping other people with theirs."

Pignatelli-O’Brien lives in Kamas with her husband, Marc, and their two boys, Ted, age six and Cash, four. It’s a real family affair for the close-knit Pignatellis. Her parents, Dyan and Jim Pignatelli and her sister, Tina, all live in and around Park City.

A southern California native, she was a talented swimmer and diver as a child and still heads for the pool at every opportunity. Family trips to Hawaii, Park City and Crested Butte, Colorado are among her fondest memories.

Pignatelli-O’Brien graduated from the University of Virginia, where she majored in foreign affairs and was a springboard diver. She took her law degree from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. It wasn’t easy.

"Law school, was a struggle for me," she recalls. "I was in my mid-20s by then and could never find the right place to sit, where I could hear both the professors and students asking questions." Her as yet undiagnosed hearing loss was taking its toll.

Pignatelli-O’Brien met Marc in 1997 while they were working together as summer associates at an Atlanta-based law firm. "It took us awhile to get our acts together, but we finally started dating in 2002. It was difficult because, for a year, he was working in London and I was in Atlanta. The couple married soon after he moved home in an elegant, Park City ceremony. They moved here in 2006.

"After three very difficult years of law school and six years of legal practice, where the dreaded conference call was my biggest fear, I finally had my hearing checked," she says. This, only after her father urged her to be tested. He’d been recently diagnosed with a genetically-inherited hearing disorder himself. Putting the pieces together, he knew that his mother had severe hearing loss as well. "It got to the point that she never knew what anyone was saying during conversations at the dinner table," Pignatelli-O’Brien explains. "She slowly but surely retreated into herself. It was sad to see because we’ve always been a very social family. "A lot of people with hearing loss, especially the elderly, withdraw from social circles."

Getting fitted with hearing aids was weird," she recounts. "I said to my legal assistant, ‘have I always walked this loudly?’ It’s like when you’re fitted with glasses for the first time and you suddenly realize that all those trees actually have leaves."

Pignatelli-O’Brien says her family has always been there for her, helping her cope with hearing loss. "My husband knew me before and after hearing aids and he’s always been very supportive. We nicknamed them ‘french fries’ to give them a positive connotation. There are few foods I like more. While my hearing aids don’t give me perfect hearing, he’s witnessed firsthand how they’ve changed my life."

She and her family want to help others with hearing loss change their lives as well. In her story published in the July 6-9 edition of The Park Record, Pignatelli-O’Brien wrote about her hearing loss in a very personal way. She took that opportunity to promote an informative presentation on hearing loss to be held at the Park City Medical Center, 900 Round Valley Drive, next Tuesday, July 16 at 5 p.m.

The free talk, called "Living Well with Hearing Loss," is aimed at anyone with hearing loss, their partners, family members and friends. Doctors Frances Harris and Nicole Marrone of the University of Arizona will provide background on hearing loss, talk about current research and technologies for better hearing and suggest strategies to improve communication in difficult listening situations. The presentation will be followed by a question-and-answer period. To reserve a seat, email livingwellwithhearingloss@gmail.com .

Pignatelli-O’Brien says one of the most challenging aspects of her hearing loss is communicating with her two young sons. "My boys don’t think there’s anything wrong with me, they just want me to hear them. So they’ve learned how to communicate with me. They look me in the eye, they speak slowly and clearly and they don’t talk to me when my back is turned.

"You can look at hearing loss as a disability, or as an opportunity," she concludes. "I hope that the hearing challenges I face will help me teach my children to be better communicators, both in talking and listening."

VITAL STATISTICS

Favorite things to do: ski, run, hike, hot yoga, attend outdoor concerts

Favorite foods: french fries, sushi

Favorite authors: John Irving, Tom Wolfe, Pat Conroy

Favorite music performers: Dave Matthews Band, U2

Bucket list: run a marathon; learn to like camping; get over my fear of mountain biking; take the kids around the world

Animal companions: Soledad, age two, and Marisol, six months two messy, silly, clumsy, sock-eating Bernese mountain dogs.


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