One tough Mutter: Hearing impairment doesn’t slow West Forsyth softball player
Published 2:13 pm Monday, March 28, 2022
By Jay Spivey
For the Clemmons Courier
Imagine what it’s like to barely be able to hear anything. Not only that, but to barely able to hear when you’re a top-notch athlete in a top-notch program.
That’s the case for Emily Mutter, a senior softball player at West Forsyth. Making things even more difficult, Mutter is predominantly the catcher for the Titans, which means she gives the signals for the pitcher, Cate Etchason, as well as all defensive setups for the infielders and outfielders.
Enter Kevin Baity, the head softball coach at West Forsyth.
“She’s something special,” Baity said of Mutter. “I think how strong she’s been, even as a freshman. Her work ethic is great. She can actually play any position. She has caught, played third and first for me. But she truly can play anywhere that I needed her to play. And (she’s) very quiet but does her talking on the field.”
According to Mutter’s mother, Tammy Mutter, the hearing problems began to surface when Emily was in third grade.
“She was eating breakfast, and I was talking to her, and she just didn’t look at me,” Tammy said. “I noticed something was wrong. And I went to her teachers and I asked them, and they mentioned something when they called her and her back was to them that she wouldn’t turn around.
“So, we went and had her hearing checked, and she had lost high frequency.”
It didn’t dawn on Emily that she had a hearing deficiency.
“I never knew, to be honest,” she said. “When I was younger, I didn’t really think about that because I didn’t hear them, because I didn’t know.”
Her hearing continued to get worse as she got older.
“Freshman year, I really noticed a big change in my hearing,” Emily said. “It went down too much to the point I had get something where I wouldn’t be deaf. Like, consider that.”
The summer before her sophomore year, she elected to get a cochlear implant, which is an electronic device that stimulates the nerve used for hearing. The implant, which has internal and external parts, is surgically implanted, and once inserted, it can pick up sounds with a microphone. After that, it processes the sound and transmits it to the internal piece of the implant.
“You would never have known,” Tammy said. “That’s how well — nobody knew. I was like, ‘Emily, how do you play ball?,’ or ‘How did you get in school?’
“And she was like, ‘Well, I just read lips and they do a lot of Power Points.’ Nobody really knew. It fooled me.”
To Emily’s mother, Emily hid her impairment so well, that she had no idea her hearing had decreased until she went to the doctor for the implant.
“I knew that she had hearing loss, but we just didn’t know it was that bad because she stopped wearing hearing aids in middle school,” Tammy said.
There was a simple reason why Emily didn’t wear her hearing aids.
“They would hurt my ears,” she said.
Tammy added to what Emily was going through.
“They squeaked and they squealed, and they made noise,” Tammy said. “And then she picked up all kind of background noise. And they’re loud.”
One thing the surgery did was allow her to experience things that most of us take for granted.
“When she got the cochlear implant, she heard rain for the first time,” Tammy said.
Hearing something like pattering of rain took Emily off-guard.
“It was kind of weird,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh, wait, that’s what rain sounds like.’ It was really nice to hear stuff, but other times it’s nice to have peaceful surroundings around us.’
“I’m blessed with that, too.”
Emily’s doctors still aren’t sure what caused her hearing impairment.
“We don’t know. We would have to do a genetic test,” Tammy said. “There is hearing loss on my husband’s side of the family. But theirs came on by illness. (Emily’s) granddad’s parents were both deaf and had seven kids. And so, they all grew up and both parents were deaf.”
There are still many questions.
“It could possibly be genetic,” Tammy said. “The test was really expensive at the time, so we didn’t do that. But we don’t know how. It was just like I remember in third grade she had a fever. And she ran a fever for a week. It wasn’t really high. I mean, it wasn’t extremely high. It’s the only thing I can pinpoint it back to. It was like a virus or something.
“They said they would like to do genetic testing, but she has a decision to make on whether she gets a second cochlear.”
One side effect of the cochlear implant is having her question as to whether to get a second implant.
“They cut my taste on one side of my mouth,” Emily said. “So, I can’t taste on one side. But if I get the other one either I take all my hearing or they cut my taste, and I can’t taste anything. I don’t want to lose my taste for food or anything.”
With all of these options it’s tough for anybody, let alone a teenager, to have to decide what’s best for them.
“I’m still deciding because they said they would talk to other surgeons and help me out, maybe if they can find a different way to save my hearing and my taste,” Emily said. “I’m still kind of two-sided about it.”
There is no timetable as to when Emily needs to decide one way or the other.
“If my hearing drastically declines, then I will probably just go ahead and cut my hearing, and then get the other cochlear,” she said. “That’s my plan.”
As mothers often do, they know their child almost as well as the child themselves.
“She has a hearing aid in one ear (left), and the cochlear is in the right,” Tammy said. “It’s a hybrid cochlear. She has a little bit of hearing left in her left ear.”
According to Emily, she hears 10% in her right ear. Tammy added that Emily’s left ear had 40%, and it’s dropped to 12%.
“Her hearing’s weird,” Tammy said. “It can go up a little bit and then it can go down. Or it will just stabilize. It stabilized for two years. And then last month it had decreased a lot.”
At some point she will lose her hearing without the cochlear implant, which she can take off.
“It’s kind of difficult because I’ve been hearing but then if I completely lose it then I have lost one of my senses,” Emily said. “It’s kind of hard for me.”
There’s another dilemma, especially for a senior in high school.
“I don’t know sign language, so I’d have to learn that,” Emily said.
Softball has always been a place for Mutter to seek peace, because not only has she had a hearing deficiency for much of her life, she said that she’s been picked on by her peers throughout the last seven or eight years of schooling.
However, it doesn’t show on the softball field.
Baity said that Mutter batted .427 her freshman year, which led the team for the Titans, and she added 20 RBIs. Then, the season was halted her sophomore year because of COVID-19.
“Ever since her freshman year, she has rotated catcher and first base,” Baity said. “She would catch one game and Caroline (Johnson, who is out for her senior year after having foot surgery) would catch the next. And they would just rotate back-and-forth until the playoffs, and then I had to figure out who was doing the best. But they rotated for three years.
“And now, of course with Caroline’s injury it’s Emily. She’s it. She’s catching every game, which is not easy playing three and four games a week, catching every single pitch.”
According to Baity, it’s helped Etchason.
“I definitely I think has been more beneficial for Cate (Etchason) having one catcher versus rotating,” Baity said. “Cate hasn’t pitched since her freshman year (now a junior) for me. She played JV her freshman year and pitched every game. Her sophomore year, we had to pull her up because we didn’t have outfielders. I pulled her up just to play outfield,”
Mutter’s defense behind the plate has proven beneficial.
“Emily, she’s such a good blocker,” Baity said. “Nothing gets past her. And she receives the ball so well. She frames well.
“We have this thing together now, because I need to know what’s working. And if I call a pitch, say a curveball, and even if the girl crushes the ball, I’ll look at Emily and she immediately would tell me, yes, it worked, or no, it didn’t. We just have our way so that I can chart that. So, I know next time up if it did work and the girl hits it well then, I need to know that the next time they come up. But if she crushes it and didn’t work at all I know what we can still try that again.”
Despite her hearing impairment, Mutter is like an extension of Baity on the field.
Baity said he gives Mutter both hand signals and speaks to her face-to-face so she can read his lips.
“If she’s catching, if she’s not looking at me, she doesn’t hear me,” Baity said. “Sometimes, I’ll yell at her, and say, ‘Emily, Emily.’ She just don’t hear because she may have the helmet on. But either way, if she’s not looking at me. If she’s looking at me, she’ll understand everything I say.”
Ideally, Mutter would like to platoon with Johnson at catcher, but with Johnson’s injury, that’s impossible.
“I’m a senior on the field. I like playing with her (Johnson),” Mutter said. “And I like playing first, too. I like switching off to get a break, but it’s OK to be a catcher.”
Playing catcher hasn’t hurt Mutter either offensively or defensively through the first 10 games of the season. After last Friday’s doubleheader with Reynolds, in which West Forsyth improved to 7-3 overall and 4-2 in the Central Piedmont 4-A, Mutter is hitting .484 and has a .568 on-base percentage. She also has 18 RBIs and hit a game-winning grand slam in the first game of the season to defeat Southwest Guilford 12-2.
Mutter, although she was happy with her first surgeon, has decided to go to a different surgeon in April. There’s a 50-50 chance she could lose her taste.
“I would rather her taste, and she has one good cochlear, so she can hear,” Tammy said. “Who doesn’t want to taste food? That would just be so depressing, and you would lose two senses.”
If she gets the cochlear implant in her left ear, her hearing won’t be like most of us.
“It’s a different kind of hearing,” Emily said. “It’s more of a computer hearing, I would say. It’s more high-pitched.”
Losing her hearing was hard on her mother.
“I sound like Minnie Mouse to her,” Tammy said. “That was hard for me, knowing how she hears, she doesn’t hear me. And that was hard.”
Tammy Mutter has tried to rationalize her daughter’s hearing impairment.
“She’s a good kid,” Tammy said. “We all have things that life throws at us, and it’s how we deal with it. And this is just something that she deals with me, but she can also help other people.”
In the short term, Emily can help her team. West Forsyth played host to powerhouse East Forsyth on Tuesday, which has pitcher Kierston Deal, who has signed to play at Oklahoma next year. The Titans will play at Mount Tabor on Friday, and are at home against Surry Central on Saturday.
“She’s very sensitive, and not everybody on her team knows about it. And not everybody in the school knows about it,” Tammy said.
Emily wants to get the word out to possibly help others.
“I used to get picked on when I was little about it, which kind of hurt me, which made me feel sensitive about it,” she said. “But now, if they find out, they find out. It’s just like having glasses, I would think, to me.”
Baity said there was no reason for her to be self-conscious about her hearing impairment.
“She’s the sweetest kid,” he said.
Baity, who has four seniors on the team for the Titans, is aware that Mutter wants to be a nurse. But he added that no matter what she chooses to do she’ll be successful.
“She’s the only senior I have that has started since her freshman year, and has been on varsity since her freshman year,” Baity said. “She is special. And it’s going to be tough. She’s one that’s definitely going to be hard to fill that role, that spot, just because she never questions anything I do.
“Emily never misses a fall workout, never misses a winter workout…You know how they say, ‘If the gym’s open I’m there.’ Well, if that field is unlocked that kid’s there.”
After the season, graduation will be in June. Mutter has her sights on going to UNC Greensboro in the fall to pursue nursing.
“She wants to take (sign language) next year in school at college,” Tammy said. “And the neat thing, when we went to visit UNCG, we were waiting around and this little girl came over. She had questions, and she came over and asked us, ‘Do you have any questions?’
“We talked about her hearing. And her brother happened to be deaf, and she played softball on the club team. And all the roommates were nurses and it sealed the deal for Emily. Like, this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Whether it be somebody with a hearing impairment, or has any other medical condition, Mutter knows that she can help somebody if she’s a nurse.
“I want to learn how I lost (my hearing), but I’m never going to know,” she said. “I just like helping others, to be honest.”