A University of Kansas Medical Center audiology graduate finds a home halfway around the world in New Zealand
November 15, 2017
By Greg Peters
The flatlands of Kansas are a long way from Taupo on the North Island of New Zealand - 7,623 miles to be exact. So when an audiology graduate from the University of Kansas Medical Center up and moves from land-locked Kansas to an island nation halfway around the world, there has to be a story.
In 2010, Angela Alexander - aka Angela Loucks as the Newton, Kansas, native was known when she was a doctoral student in the Department of Hearing and Speech - was treating a client in her audiology practice who was about to undergo cochlear implant surgery. The man asked if Alexander could walk his daughter through the process. The only catch was they would have to meet on Christmas Eve because the daughter was flying home that day from New Zealand for the holidays.
Alexander became interested in New Zealand - a country whose amazing sights and sounds have been made famous in recent years by fantasy movies such as "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" - when she spent a year tending bar in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands after completing her master's degree at KU in 2006. Her fascination with all things Kiwi came about when she asked the where their favorite place was in the world and the answers kept coming up New Zealand. That, combined with a love of the short-lived TV show "Flight of the Conchords," left her smitten.
"I ended up asking the daughter more questions about New Zealand than she asked me about her dad's surgery," Angela recalled. "After our meeting, I had dinner with Sean and told him all I could remember about what she said about New Zealand. On the way his grandparents' house on Christmas morning, I told him that I wanted to move to New Zealand.
"He surprised me by saying he would gladly move, too."
Alexander's journey might have begun as a lark, but it took a fair amount of planning. Her boyfriend and now husband agreed to the move but with stipulations. First, they would need to take a year to properly investigate the country and say goodbye to family and friends. Next, they had to sell their house. Finally, he wanted to visit New Zealand to make sure they were making the right decision.
"We told his father first, and he wisely told us, 'no one is going to want you to do this, but don't listen to them. They don't want to miss you and don't want you to go away. But if you feel it's the next step for you, then do it!'"
Over the next year: Sean popped the question; they had a big wedding; their house went on the market; and on New Year's Day 2012, they moved to New Zealand.
A passion for helping others
Growing up, Alexander always had an interest in speech, hearing and language. Her interest began early because there were concerns about her own hearing after she had difficulty with some audiology tests; trouble she admits may have been due in part to her mischievous side.
"I faked a hearing loss on the test because I loved being in the hearing test booth and seeing all the equipment," she said. "Audiologists typically can't stand when people are showing 'functional' hearing loss or are lying during exams. But I have a special spot in my heart for kids who do this."
Alexander's curiosity grew into a passion and then a vocation. She graduated in 2004 with a bachelor's degree from KU in speech-language-hearing and then a master's degree in audiology. Alexander completed her Doctor of Audiology in 2010.
Part of her planning for the move was to line up a job, so she interviewed at several clinics, including the University of Auckland. In 2012, she joined the staff at Taupo Audiology as a clinical audiologist.
Alexander is one of two experts in the country for treating auditory processing disorder (APD). She says working with the APD children is a labor of love. In fact, she is so passionate about working with APD clients that in October 2015, she opened Hear Better Audiology.
"It started out as a weekend hobby, but I soon realized that my passion needed to take center stage," said Alexander, whose practice was recognized as the "Emerging Business" and "Excellence in Innovation" award winners in the Service IQ Great Lake Taupo Business Awards.
Experts note about 5 percent of children have APD, a disorder that affects the way a person's brain processes sound. Children with APD often look lost in noisy environments and struggle with multi-step directions, said Alexander, who says she struggled to understand teachers when she was a child. The good news is that with systematic therapy, children can improve their auditory processing.
"One of the things I appreciate about treating children with APD is the ability to improve their auditory skills," she said. "We can improve auditory memory, decoding ability and even the ability to integrate auditory information across the two hemispheres of the brain through a process called auditory training."
Alexander adjusts her practice to her client needs. For example, 3- to 5-year olds might need simplified instructions from their parents, while her 50- to 80-year-old clients might need support on how to use computer apps to help with prosthetic devices.
"I read once, 'Be the person you needed as a child,' and that resonates with me," she said. "I've had close friends and family members who were highly intelligent but didn't have the pleasure of feeling successful in an academic environment. My focus is looking at the deficits a person has with their auditory skills and finding ways we can systematically improve them through therapy, apps, or improving the understanding of the people around them."
At home in Taupo
At home in the lakeside city of Taupo, the Alexanders have found a little slice of paradise. They live just a two-hour drive from the ocean, an hour from skiing fields and minutes away from one of the largest lakes in the hemisphere. If that isn't reward enough for being so far from their Kansas roots, they are also within minutes of spectacular waterfalls and enticing thermal pools.
"New Zealand is our country of choice," she said. "We feel like moving here is one of the best decisions we've ever made." That doesn't mean, however, that Alexander doesn't miss a few of the touches of home. "Aside from the obvious friends and family, I miss dill pickles, KC BBQ, the Chiefs and Royals, and, of course, KU basketball."
Alexander is something of a celebrity on the roller derby circuit. A member of the rowing team at KU, Alexander has transferred her athletic skills onto skates. "''Merica," as she's known around the derby circuit in New Zealand competed for the Taupo Huka Dolls. You can even catch a glimpse of the team in an online video skating around a local grocery store to promote an upcoming event.
"Sean told me he wished I had a hobby," said Alexander, who has also gone by "Vanilla Thunder" and "Kansas Twist-Her." "I had always been interested in roller derby. I've played on four teams in five years and even started my own league."
That, however, is not how this adventure ends. In recent months, Alexander has had to hang up her skates of late to get ready for the birth of the couple's first child.
"I can't wait to watch this little one learn and adapt to this amazing world," Alexander said. "We are so excited to raise a little Kiwi."