Croatia mercy mission proves career-changing moment for award-winning audiologist

A life-changing mercy mission to war-torn Croatia was to set Paul Stokes on a very different career path.

The journey in 2001 included visits to orphanages, refugee camps and hospitals, giving the basics to those who were left with nothing.

By the time he returned home, the heartbreaking scenes he had witnessed convinced him a career change was needed.

So the former car stereo salesman jacked in his job in banking and trained as an audiologist, helping people with hearing difficulties.

It was a decision that, more than 20 years later, would see Paul (pictured right) recognised as the UK’s paediatric audiologist of the year after being nominated by a grateful mum of one of his young patients.

He visited Croatia with a group of volunteers from churches across south Wales to help those who had been hit hardest by a series of wars within the former Republic of Yugoslavia.

Paul said: “Everywhere we went there were signs of war – buildings riddled with bullet holes and massive chunks of masonry missing.

“I remember seeing the fins of a mortar shell imbedded in a pavement in Vukovar while the doors of a hotel we stayed in had been filled after insurgents had sprayed every room with bullets during the war.

“The sights we saw there will never leave me. Families had nothing to give their children. It broke my heart, and I still get quite emotional about it – you can’t forget things like that.

“We met a family who had absolutely nothing – and I can’t stress that enough when I say that – so we clubbed everything we had and managed to buy them a small house and holding.

“It was only around 5,500 Euros, and they had electric, heating and running water. It was life-changing for them.

“That, along with what I witnessed in the orphanages, refugee camps and hospitals, made me realise I needed to do something more with my life.”

PICTURED: Paul delivering aid in Croatia in 2001.

That change was triggered further by an article in a newspaper written by an audiologist, and it convinced him to train in a new profession.

He left his job in a bank and enrolled on a course at Swansea University that was the equivalent of three A Levels within an academy year.

Paul said: “It was a risk, of course, particularly as my wife and I were looking to start a family.

“But when I saw the piece in the paper it talked about inter-personal skills, psychology, an interest in sound and acoustics – I had all that. I was an audio nerd who had fitted home cinemas and car stereo systems.

“I worked really hard to get my qualifications as quickly as possible because I wanted to make a difference to people’s lives as soon as I could.”

His first job in the profession took him to Merthyr before he joined the health board in Swansea Bay six years ago.

Now a senior audiologist, his care, compassion and personal approach with paediatric patients has made a massive difference to those with hearing problems.

It led to a patient’s mother nominating Paul for the 2022 British Academy of Audiology annual awards, where he was named paediatric audiologist of the year.

Paul added: “I am very proud of it because I am very passionate about my job and the people I see every day.

“The real success is the success of the patients, more than the award, but it just highlights how we are all making a difference within the health board.

“Managing expectations is a big part of the job. The key thing is giving the patient what they need, rather than what they want.

“I’ve had patients who remember buying sub woofers off me in the car stereo shop many years ago and have said ‘there you were selling me music devices that amplified music and now you’re sorting my hearing out’. So I guess I’m righting my wrongs!

“While there is a stigma around hearing aids, the difference people notice once they wear them is incredible – but it’s making them realise that which can be the big obstacle.

“The impact of a hearing deficiency is huge. You have to understand a number of different issues the patient could be going through.

“It can lead to social exclusion, affect confidence and general health and wellbeing.

“It’s more than just a case of ‘I can’t hear this, so I’ll turn the volume up on the TV’.

“It has made a massive difference to patients, and that is the best part of my job.

“You won’t become a millionaire working in this job, but you feel like one when you see the difference it makes in people’s lives.”

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