Friday, June 27, 2008

Sylmar!

Several months ago, when we started getting serious about our plans to go to Reno, I mentioned to my friend Gloria Garner, who is a Web education specialist at Advanced Bionics, that while I was out west, I would love to travel just a little FURTHER west and visit the Advanced Bionics production facility in Sylmar, California. I knew that the plant did tours and basically just wanted to know what days of the week, what hours, etc. that they did these tours, and I would just mosey my little self over there and check the place out after the convention was over, or perhaps before, just whenever.
However, Gloria dreams big...and before I knew it, she had turned my little road trip into a full-fledged plant tour. First the Bionic Ear Associates were invited, then the invitation was issued on several Yahoogroups lists and on HearingJourney.com. In my opinion, that was even better...not only would I get a tour, but I'd have folks to hang out with! A few weeks before this tour, I got an invitation from Advanced Bionics: would I be interested in being Advanced Bionics' guest and speaking at this tour? to the tour group? and the CEO of the company?
WHOA! This was big!! However...it sounded like a tremendous opportunity, and I did what I usually do...jump straight in and worry about the logistics later. YES, I said...I would LOVE to do that!
My enthusiasm was literally doubled, perhaps tripled, when I found out that my friend Evelyn was going to be there...and she was to be another speaker at this luncheon!
So that is how Evelyn and I came to be standing in front of this sign at around 10 AM on Monday, June 16th, at Sylmar Biomedical Park in Sylmar, CA. (click any picture to bigify)
We went inside and were properly greeted, hugged, and name-tagged. Then we met the rest of the tour group and were divided up into two groups. The tour itself was incredible. We got to see every part of it from production to packaging. The same exacting care was shown at every stage of production.
This picture shows the machines where some of the metal components are laser-etched (my lack of technical knowledge and my pitiful recall will be sorely obvious from this point on). No touching of the components are allowed except through these huge long rubber arms, which, quite frankly, look just as funny hanging out of the machine as they do in the pictures.
Each implant is X-rayed through two layers of sterile packaging before it leaves the facility to make sure that it is just right. The white boxes contain brand new HiRes 90k internal components. That's one expensive pile.

Through this window you can watch the workers assembling the electrode array by hand. They work under microscopes and with tweezers.
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There is a TV screen in the hallway where you can watch one of the workers' work under her microscope. The tweezers are in the bottom corner. They are bringing up a tiny wire that will be spot welded by the welder (the pointy thing at the top).
The workers have to go through a gowning room before they can start work. Shoes, gowns, face masks, gloves, shower caps. No makeup is allowed in some areas. No dust allowed! This is precision work, folks!
This fella is putting a Platinum Series processor through its paces before it leaves the plant.
I frankly have no idea what this man is doing, but look at him: his shoes have coverings and his arms are chained to the table...at least it looks that way. These are all anti-static measures...zapping processors is not a good thing.
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So, after the tour was over, we all went outside and there stood Mr. Jeff Griener, president and CEO of the Advanced Bionics Corporation. We all posed for a group shot with him and then went back inside to the luncheon. When we were going in, Evelyn's sharp eyes noticed something I didn't...there were POSTERS with OUR PICTURES on them! Photo op time!

A few minutes later the group fixed their plates and sat down to eat and Gloria informed Evelyn and me that it was showtime! Monday's talks were to be brief...about five minutes in length...and focus on the HearingJourney.com community. Evelyn and I are both moderators there, which means that we are some of the official greeters and cheerleaders and we read every post and keep an eye out for any issues that might come up. In doing that, we have been just blown away by the amazing people that we have met and been privileged to not only get to know, but become almost like family to these folks. We shared some of our interactions with some of these people with the group to help them understand the sense of community that the online forum provides.
Here, I'm speaking, the cameraman is recording *ack* and the girl in the black shirt is interpreting in ASL (that poor girl...this Southern girl packs a lot of words per minute, and I'm sure she was exhausted when I was done!)
My pictures of Evelyn speaking were blurry, and I am going to have to throw myself upon the mercy of her hubby Norm, who got some pictures of his own, and beg him to send me some. Mr. Griener also talked for a few minutes (my pictures of him were equally blurry) about the plans for the future and encouraged questions and comments afterwards. I was VERY impressed by him. If something was in the works, he shared it. If something wasn't feasible, he simply explained why. He was very articulate and open and honest almost to the point of bluntness. I like that...no pretending, no grandstanding.
In this picture, after the talks were over, Evelyn and I got a chance to meet Mr. Griener himself and talk to him for a little while. I asked permission to deliver a hug from a dear friend and he allowed it...then he got one from me too, and I thanked him for everything he has done to give me the gift that I have today...the gift of being able to hear the world around me. I DO NOT TAKE THIS GIFT LIGHTLY...it is an incredible, precious gift...and I am amazed every.single.day.
Sweet Evelyn and her darling hubby Norm! I got so many smiles being around those two!
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Here's a close-up of our posters. When I left, I asked if I could take one home, and not only did they give me one, but they offered to roll it up and mail it to me so I wouldn't smush it in the suitcase in the way home (which I would have done). They go the extra mile even in the teeniest things...I love those people!
I just love this girl!!! Denice is another of the moderators on HearingJourney. Her daughter Ali (the youngest of ELEVEN DAUGHTERS) is a bilateral bionic girl just like yours truly. Ali decided that we should be friends as soon as she met me and came over and started feeding me Fritos in the middle of Evelyn's speech. After a few seconds of that, she decided that we'd been formal long enough and climbed up in my lap and made herself comfortable. The bionic little ones always really touch my heart...and Ali and her smile and her sunshiny personality literally had me in tears. I miss that little girl!
We left the plant around 3ish and made our way back to the hotel. I got on the computer for a while and got some jeans on and then met Norm and Evelyn down in the lobby for a ride to Valencia. We managed to turn what should have been a ten minute drive into a half hour one because I gave Norm the wrong address for his Magellan *sigh* but we had left early enough that we got there just in time. We met Gloria, Beth Anne McDonald, who is the Consumer Outreach Supervisor at AB, and Jerry Schloffman, who is the Director of Marketing at AB, for dinner at the Vine restaurant in Valencia. We were there for a couple of hours and just had a great time talking and getting better acquainted. I have a funny habit of taking pictures of my food if I go to a fancy restaurant, and I was frankly squirming a bit wondering how this quirky Tennessee girl was gonna get pictures of my food in this fancy-schmancy restaurant in front of these folks. Don't know what I was worried about...when the salad came out, I oohed and aaahed over it until Gloria turned to me and said, "Aren't you going to take a picture of it?" Well, that settled it...didn't have to ask me twice. I had to explain the whole picture thing to Norm and Evelyn, who weren't yet aware that I had this particular quirk, and when the main course came out, Norm was ready...he offered to take my picture with my seafood risotto!


The dinner was delicious...but the company was the best part...everyone was friendly, warm, and comfortable...it really felt like sitting down with people you'd known a long time. I never met anyone at AB the whole time I was there that wasn't that way...if I lived in California, I would be begging them to hire me to work there! Just incredible people all around.
After dessert and coffee, we loaded up and headed back to the hotel, where I got back to the computer...one speech down...three more to go :)!
What an incredible day!
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