VIENNA, Austria — When she was born at 28 weeks gestation, no one expected Luciana Adele Föger to live. Doctors removed part of a tiny lung and put her on a breathing machine. Her parents prayed. She had to be resuscitated three times over the next few weeks.
When she survived to toddlerhood and beyond, it was suggested to her parents that she couldn’t hear and could certainly never be expected to speak, hold a job, or lead a normal life. In fact, she had a profound hearing impairment, and the little hearing she did have would deteriorate steadily as she got older.
Now 28, Föger can hear and speak, both German and English, and has a full-time job in the cosmetics industry. She’s engaged to be married next year. And she’s a returned missionary who’s paving the way for the gospel to be taught in German Sign Language.
The daughter of a mother who had served a full-time mission and a father who had converted from a strong Catholic family, Sister Föger’s desire was to serve a mission when she turned 21. Yet, she couldn’t imagine how she could do that with her impairment; she had already rejected the idea of a cochlear implant at age 16.
The surgically implanted electronic device provides a sense of sound to a deaf person by stimulating the auditory nerve. Although cochlear implants had already proven a benefit to many, Föger wanted no part of it as a teenager.
After all, she’d done OK with less than 10 percent hearing ability, attending a school for the deaf in Munich, Germany, and learning to speak German with the help of speech therapy and a lot of one-on-one work with her mother to learn complicated German grammar. One of four children, Föger had even taken piano lessons and learned to match up the notes on the page with the keys on the piano, although she never really knew how it sounded.
The possibility of hearing and speaking
Then, as she contemplated and prayed about a mission, something — a little thing — happened. Her mother asked her to simply hold the medical cochlear device in her hand for a photo. Looking at the photo later, Föger said, “I wondered, is this reminding me that I need to consider this again?”
At first fearful when told of the risks of this type of surgery, she recalled, “I just had to find the courage to talk to one doctor; I didn’t have to commit. I knew God was leading me, preparing me, for a cochlear implant.”
At age 21, she decided to go ahead with the two separate procedures, two weeks apart. After recovering from the surgeries, it took time and patience to adjust to the unfamiliar and exhausting bombardment of stimuli. She had to learn to sort out the noises she was hearing into a meaningful context, but Föger says now she “hears in colors.”
At age 25, she applied to serve a mission.
She was called to serve in the Germany Berlin Mission, entering the Missionary Training Center in Preston, England, in January 2016.
Living in two worlds
Being in the mission field was frustrating and daunting at first.
“I wasn’t sure how I belonged,” she related. “I felt I was living in two worlds — the deaf and the hearing.”
Although she would later be able to merge those two worlds through sign language, it was a struggle for many months. For one thing, mission conferences were conducted in English, and Sister Föger was overwhelmed with the German translation until the mission president found her an interpreter.
Initially, Sister Föger hadn’t expected to use sign language on her mission, as there are not many deaf Latter-day Saints in Germany.
“But Christ invited all people to come to Him, and bring to the temple the deaf and dumb, those with disabilities, and those with heavy burdens to carry,” she recounted. It came to her that this was her mission, too.
Her journal page for Jan. 23, 2017, records (translated): “I was in the (Freiberg) Temple thinking about Joseph Smith, and how he’d started from zero. ... Since then, we’ve received more revelation. This is the stone upon which we will start to build the program. ... We are each the different tools coming together so that there will (someday) be a temple session in German Sign Language.”
She wrote down the scripture reference 3 Nephi 18:32 to remind her that she’d had that personal revelation on including everyone and needed to act on it.
Merging worlds through sign language
During her mission, she was often told, “Be still.”
She said, “God was preparing a way for me to teach GSL. I felt like Nephi building the ship — I didn’t know how, but I knew this was my purpose.”
An elder who had arrived before her and had previously expressed his desire to the mission president to learn sign language was given permission to be taught by Sister Föger.
“One became five, then all the missionaries wanted to learn some basic phrases in German Sign Language.” The missionaries she taught wore name tags indicating they could speak GSL.
Sister Föger was encouraged and assisted in her quest by a senior missionary couple, Elder Gentz Franz and Sister Jeri Franz, serving in her same area of Rostock. Elder Franz’s career working as a rehabilitation counselor for the State of Illinois had involved work with deaf and hard-of-hearing clients and given him a sense of the challenges they face. He was also well acquainted with ASL because of a 20-year friendship with a deaf member in his home ward.
With everyone’s help, things began changing.
“When people become aware of the challenges,” he said in a phone conversation, “changes start getting made. The Church is making more services available to members in Germany that will make church more accessible.”
The gospel in sign language
Of course, Latter-day Saint vocabulary contains words and phrases not common in ordinary conversation, so the next step was to translate the American Sign Language from the Church’s book used in the United States into GSL to cover 700 words. Sister Föger and Elder Franz completed 400 words for the GSL book in addition to their other normal mission activities before she returned home to Vienna in July 2017.
To put them in context required another 40,000-70,000 words, a project she’s still working on. She’s made teaching videos and provided them to Elder Axel Leimer, the Area Seventy who has been an advocate for hearing accessibility and who began his service as president of the Germany Berlin Mission in July.
“I applaud all those who are moving this forward — and especially Lucy, who had so much to do with it initially," Elder Franz said. "I’m amazed at her willingness to work so hard and try to function in a world that’s not accessible to her unless she makes it so. What she’s done is start the process of making the gospel and ordinances accessible to all German-speaking people in Europe.”
Föger acknowledges the help she’s received from others in the mission. Trying to envision the scope of her personal contribution to seeing that happen, “I get goose bumps,” she said. “This is just the beginning.”
Correction: A previous version of this story indicated that in order to receive a cochlear implant “the auditory nerve must be severed, rendering a person totally deaf.” This is inaccurate. While the loss of residual hearing is a risk of receiving a cochlear implant, the auditory nerve is not severed.