Joey McIntyre Opens Up About Son's Hearing Loss
When Dad’s a pop star, every minute of the day comes with a soundtrack.
“There’s always music in the house,” says New Kids on the Block’s Joey McIntyre, who lives in L.A. with his wife, Barrett, and their sons Griffin Thomas, 2, and Rhys Edward, 3 months.
But from the day he came home, the youngest McIntyre has heard little of it.
Rhys failed a routine hearing test at the hospital after he was born Dec. 13th, the couple tell PEOPLE, and extensive follow-up tests at UCLA showed that he had severe hearing loss.
Says Barrett, “What’s wild is we will never really know how [anything] sounds for him.”
When the McIntyres got the diagnosis two days before Christmas, “We went through a full range of emotions,” says Barrett, 31. “As a mother you want to protect your kids. I thought, ‘How could I let this happen?’ I felt responsible.”
But as with most cases, there is no known cause of Rhys’ hearing problems.
“You’re just shocked, and your stomach gets in knots,” says Joey, 37.
“It feels like you’re holding your breath. And that feeling lasted for a few days, until you get educated. You go from, ‘Oh my God’ — fearing that someday my son might be walking into the street and I’m calling after him and he’s not going to hear me — to ‘It’s going to be okay’ to ‘It’s going to be amazing.’ Rhys’ hearing loss is part of who he is. His life is going to be as special as Griffin’s. There’s just work involved.”
Doctors says Rhys’ condition will not get better over time, but how he processes sounds can be improved.
“We’re being totally proactive about the situation,” says Joey. That meant signing up for speech therapy and getting Rhys fitted for hearing aids in both ears when he was just a month old.
“You put his hearing aids in, and his little eyes just widen,” says Rhys’ auditory verbal therapist Sylvia Rotfleisch. “He’s so tuned in.”
The weekly therapy sessions with Rotfleisch have become family bonding time, as Rhys’ parents hold him and make particular sounds to elicit coos and other noises from him.
“It does enrich your life,” says Joey. The first time he responded to those sounds, Mom and Dad had tears in their eyes.
“He knows our voices now,” says Barrett. “He’s a sweet, responsive baby. He’s doing all the things he should be for a baby his age, and that’s beautiful. It’s all of the things you take for granted.”
“His hearing aids make a huge difference,” Joey adds. “Griffin goes, ‘Cool hearing aids, Rhys-y.'”
They won’t know for at least another nine months whether Rhys will need cochlear implants (electronic devices surgically inserted behind the ear), but no matter what happens, they’re optimistic.
“A family friend has a 5-year-old girl with hearing loss, and she goes to the same school as her sister,” says Joey. “Just to learn that was like a burst of sunlight. Will Rhys hear as finely as we do? I’m not sure. But he’ll be able to come to one of my shows and take it in [in his own way].”
While they were thrilled to learn that they will be able to “do everything together as a family,” says Barrett, the McIntyres do think about how other kids will treat Rhys when he’s older. Barrett feels his temperament will only help.
“He’s really easy-going; he has that chill vibe,” she says. “Rhys’ hearing loss won’t stop him from doing anything. That’s not to say his first day of school or when he goes to high school, I won’t be sick; It’s hard enough to go to school with curly hair and a zit. But he’ll be so cool that hopefully he won’t have a problem with it.”
For now, the couple revel in family moments like 6 a.m. breakfasts, when Gene Kelly‘s “Singin’ In the Rain” is on, Griffin and Mom are dusty with flour from making waffles, and Dad skims the newspaper and talks to baby Rhys.
“It gets better and better,” says Joey, who recently released his fifth solo album, Here We Go Again, and hits the road with the New Kids in May.
“This is the fabric of life. And I can’t imagine mine without this, because Rhys is awesome and perfect and great.”
— Jessica Herndon