For Gianna “Gigi” Caruso, the first years of her life were spent missing the little things — like the sound of leaves rustling or rain falling — that many may take for granted.
Shortly after birth, Caruso was diagnosed with bilateral moderate to moderately severe sensorineural hearing loss, a common type of permanent hearing loss that stems from damage to the inner ear. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the condition causes soft sounds to be difficult to hear, and loud sounds to be unclear or muffled.
“I had a hard time hearing my teachers in school and often reading lips was the only way I could engage in a conversation with someone,” Caruso, 19, of Los Angeles tells PEOPLE. “When you can’t hear, it’s hard to carry on conversations with people.”
As a child, the challenges took a toll on Caruso, who is now an Instagram influencer and fashion entrepreneur.
“I had a tough time making friends as a kid, and I always remember how difficult sleepovers were when I was little,” says Caruso. “For my friends, the fun started when the lights went out and the parents went to bed, but that’s when the fun ended for me and I felt isolated and alone because I couldn’t lip-read anymore.”
“I felt disconnected,” she adds, “because of those little things.”
Typically, medicine and surgery won’t help those who have SNHL, and hearing aids offer the best chance for them to catch the sounds they otherwise wouldn’t. For Caruso, wearing hearing aids as a child was burdensome, and left her feeling introverted — they were a constant reminder that she was different than other children she went to school with.
“I felt like everyone was looking at me,” she says. “That made me shy, on top of not being able to hear. When other kids were at home playing, I was spending hours with my speech therapist. She would tell me if my words sounded correct or incorrect; I had to trust her because I couldn’t tell.”
It wasn’t until 2014 that a game-changing device, the Phonak Lyric extended-wear hearing aids, came her way and would transform the way she felt about herself and how she interacted with the world.
“It instantly improved my ability to hear,” Caruso recalls of having them installed by doctors at the University of Southern California. “I remember having trouble sleeping the first night I wore it because I could hear the sound of the sheets rustling — a sound I never knew existed.”
The device, a modified hearing aid, is inserted deep into the ear canal so that it is essentially invisible to others, which can add a mental benefit to those who are used to traditional hearing aids that are connected to the outer ear.
“In the beginning, it was overwhelming because I was hearing so much,” says Caruso, who now owns and designs her own swimwear line, GIGI C Bikinis. “My head would start hurting and I didn’t understand where noises were coming from. I would get so overwhelmed that I would take them out just to take a break. My brain had to re-learn how to hear and listen. With time and access to sounds 24/7, I was able to adapt really quickly, and the result has been life-changing.”
Though her hearing has since improved, Caruso looks back positively at the lessons she learned while coping with the limits of hearing aid technology.
“In many ways, my hearing loss provided me with a different kind of gift. Without even realizing it, the challenges I faced taught me resilience and to trust that I could adjust to new and difficult circumstances,” Caruso says. “I’ve also come to realize that I naturally appreciate the little things in life and don’t take the simple things for granted.”
“And for so many who are still struggling, I want to remind them that there is a way to live with the hearing loss — you just have to build your own little program for yourself,” she adds. “Test things out. Find what works best for you. Don’t get frustrated and give up. But if you do, don’t be ashamed to give yourself a break. Take out your hearing aids for a minute. My break is going in the water — it is my escape. I want people to know that it’s okay to do that.”