ABESCON — Gavin Gillespie describes himself as normal.
Jamie Gillespie calls his son remarkable.
They’re both right.
Gavin was born with sensorineural hearing loss in both ears. Without his hearing aids, he is essentially deaf.
Doctors at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia told his parents, Jamie and Karen, that he would never read above a second-grade level. Now a sophomore at Holy Spirit High School, where Jamie is the boys basketball coach, Gavin has a 4.0 grade point average and is a burgeoning basketball and baseball player. He reads lips to understand what people are saying to him.
“What he compensates for during the course of the day is remarkable,” Jamie said. “He can’t hear unless he’s seeing you. You never know as a parent when you’re faced with this type of challenge what the future holds.”
Sensorineural hearing loss is the most common type of permanent hearing loss. It occurs when there is damage to the inner ear or the nerves that connect the inner ear to the brain.
On the court last week, when the Spartans’ junior varsity team played at Atlantic City, the 16-year-old hustled after loose balls, set screens to free teammates for open shots and sank some layups.
When referees called a foul or the ball is deflected out of bounds, he stopped like the other nine players on the court.
But for Gavin, the only player who couldn’t hear the whistle, sometimes that’s an issue.
“There are so many times I’ll get fouled,” he said with a laugh, “and I’ll keep running down the court.”
Gavin doesn’t hear the roar of the crowd after a big shot or shouts of “defense, defense” from the stands.
“I never hear what the fans are yelling,” he said. “I have to ask (my teammates), ‘What were they just chanting?’”
If someone speaks without looking straight at Gavin, it’s a problem.
“There’s sound,” he said. “I know you’re talking, but I have no clue what you’re saying.”
Gavin is the oldest of Jamie and Karen’s three boys. The family lives in Egg Harbor Township. Federal law requires that newborns have their hearing tested before they leave the hospital.
“Most people don’t even know that,” Jamie said, “because most of the time it’s a positive test.”
Within three to four months of his birth, CHOP doctors evaluated Gavin’s hearing and recommended hearing aids.
“You leave there, and it’s like, ‘What just happened?’” Jamie said.
Coaches and teachers have made accommodations to help Gavin. Lou Paone, the coach of the Upper Township Middle School basketball team where Gavin played as an eighth-grader, used hand cards to signal in plays.
Gavin also gets help from his Holy Spirit teammates. If he isn’t sure what the play is, they’ll tell him or direct him to the right spot.
“From a parent’s perspective,” Jamie said, “one of the things that has been remarkable for us is to see how supportive people can be. From peers to staff, you name it. People have always gone above and beyond to make sure he’s OK.”
Lip reading has its advantages. Gavin often reads the lips of the characters in the background of a television or movie scene and then gives his family the inside information on what they’re saying.
Gavin can’t talk on the phone. He can only text. Like just about every teenager, Gavin loves music and plays way too many video games. His favorite band is Maroon 5. He has a Bluetooth device that allows him to hear music, but only Gavin knows how clear the notes are. His favorite television show is “Glee,” which he watches on Netflix.
“I wish I could hear music better,” he said. “I think that’s why I like it so much. It’s interesting. It’s something I want to explore.”
It’s often special for a father to coach his son. It means even more to Jamie because of what he’s seen his son overcome.
Gavin understands the way he’s handled his disability is an example for others.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “I just find some way to get it done. I don’t think of myself as needing special help.”