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Deaf former FBI surveillance expert Sue Thomas battles new enemy: MS

Delma J. Francis,  Star Tribune
Published November 16, 2003

One day when she was 18 months old, Sue Thomas was watching TV with her three older brothers at home in Boardman, Ohio. Suddenly she got up and began fiddling with the knobs on the TV set, trying to turn up the volume.

The volume was at peak. She just couldn't hear it.

Just like that, she had become profoundly deaf. Doctors could provide no explanation.

Thomas, now 53, believes the cause was an early symptom of multiple sclerosis, with which she was diagnosed two years ago. But despite a lifetime of silence and the disease to battle, life is good.

"It just keeps getting better and better," said the woman whose unusual work for the FBI inspired a hit TV series.

Thomas spoke Saturday at the MS ActiveSource conference at the Marriott Airport Hotel in Bloomington.

The Pax network TV show "Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye," based on her work in FBI surveillance, is viewed weekly by 2.5 million people in 30 countries. (And yes, just as there is on the show, there was a golden retriever named Levi in her life: her first hearing-ear dog.)

Several motion-picture studios came calling after her book "Silent Night" (Tyndale House Publishers) was published in 1990. When funding for a movie project fell through, the screenwriters who had been working on her story shopped it to Pax-TV for an hourlong weekly series.

Learning to speak

The FBI phase of Thomas' life would never have happened if her parents had not encouraged her to learn to speak and to read lips, she said. She used those skills to communicate and in fact did not learn American sign language until she was about 30.

Thomas spent more than seven years learning to speak with a therapist at the Youngstown (Ohio) Hearing and Speech Center.

Today her voice has a pleasant cadence and timbre.

Despite her ability to speak and to read lips, Thomas had an unhappy school life. Teased unmercifully by five bullies who made it their job "to make my life miserable," and labeled a slow learner by teachers who didn't always face her when speaking so she could read their lips, Thomas plodded along making D's and F's.

But two people made a difference: a roller-skating coach and a high school typing teacher.

Roller skating "saved my life big-time," said Thomas, who at 7 became the youngest-ever champion freestyle roller skater in Ohio. How was that possible when she couldn't hear the music? "The coach skated hand in hand with me to the music over and over," she said. "It took a long time to learn the routines, but I did it.

"I might have talked funny and I might be a dummy, but no other kid had a trophy as big as mine, and no other kid could do the jumps I could do," she said, smiling. "That coach gave me the self-worth I needed to hold onto."

In high school, a typing teacher noticed Thomas' typing skill. "She thought, 'Hey, no dummy can type 128 words a minute,' " Thomas said. The teacher quizzed her about what she wanted to do after high school, and when she answered, "Go to college," encouraged her. In 1976, Thomas graduated from Springfield (Mass.) College with a degree in political science and international relations.

"But no one wanted to hire me because I couldn't use the telephone," she said. She turned to the speech center that had been such a part of her early life.

"They felt sorry for me and hired me, even though they didn't really have a job."

A friend of a friend of a friend got her a job classifying fingerprints with the FBI in Washington, D.C.

The FBI years

Then came a breakthrough. The FBI thought it had the goods on some suspects but couldn't prove it. The audio portion of a surveillance videotape had failed, and they didn't have a clue what the suspects were saying.

Thomas did. She read their lips and "never went back to classifying fingerprints." For the next 3 1/2 years, "I followed the bad guys around and read their lips. They even paid me for it, and I stayed around long enough to get a TV show out of it," she joked.

Thomas left the job to pursue graduate study at Columbia (S.C.) International Bible University.

She had hated her deafness for 32 years, but with the help of her faith, she said, she embraced it as a part of herself.

As a result of MS, Thomas has numbness on her right side, balance problems and decreasing vision. She wonders how she'll communicate "when the lights go out and I can no longer read lips," but she doesn't fret. "God is my strength," she said.

Despite the onset of multiple sclerosis, "my quality of life is better than ever," Thomas said. "Waking up in the morning, never knowing what that day will bring [physically], has taught me amazing grace."

Delma J. Francis is at .

© Copyright 2003 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.



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