The sounds of life: Backus man receives free hearing aids after house fire

Born without hearing in his left ear and reliant on hearing aids for much of his life, Gary Grunig was devastated when he lost those hearing aids in a house fire in February.

Seated at a table, Gary Grunig links hands with the hearing care provider
Gary Grunig, left, thanks Kimmy Widell, a hearing care provider at HearingLife of Baxter, for fitting him with new hearing aids Tuesday, April 25, 2023. Grunig received the hearing aids for free through The Campaign for Better Hearing after losing his in a house fire in February.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

BAXTER — “I can hear.”

Three simple words that made a whole world of difference for Gary Grunig.

Before April 25, simple things like listening to the news and talking on the phone were hardships for the Backus man.

Born without hearing in his left ear and reliant on hearing aids for much of his life, Grunig was devastated when he lost those hearing aids in a house fire in February.

“I put my false teeth in, but I didn’t grab my hearing aids,” Grunig said April 25, while sitting in the waiting room at HearingLife in Baxter, recalling the early morning fire.


The electrical fire started around 3:30 a.m. in the attic above Grunig’s bedroom at his home in Backus. But without his hearing aids in while sleeping, he didn’t hear a thing. He thanks his lucky stars for his 16-year-old grandson, Jacob Roberts, who was staying with him at the time while Grunig’s daughter, Jen Mitchell, was sick in the hospital. Roberts got himself, his grandpa and their dogs out of the house before calling 911.

Jen Mitchell, left, Gary Grunig and Kimmy Widell, a hearing care provider at HearingLife, talk about Grunig's new hearing aids Tuesday, April 25, 2023, at HearingLife of Baxter.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

“I truly believe that he’s the only reason that I’m alive,” Grunig said.

But without hearing aids, life was tricky.

“Just hearing normal conversations and stuff, that’s what’s tough,” he said, just before being fitted for a new pair of hearing aids at HearingLife.

Living at a motel and then a resort after the fire, while his grandson stayed with other family, Grunig was hard-pressed to communicate with his loved ones. Mitchell’s hospital stay lasted six weeks, but phone conversations were nearly impossible without hearing aids.

To make matters even harder, Grunig is also legally blind, relying a lot on his daughter for day-to-day assistance.

He lost much of his sight while working as a handyman in the extreme heat of South Africa on a mission trip in 2008. A football-sized tumor formed on his kidney during the trip.

“The people that I was in Africa with, they thought they were going to bring me home in a bodybag,” Grunig said, recalling that event also happened in February, which has proven to be a hard month for him.


He ended up in the hospital, needing his kidney removed.

“The kidney was so engorged with blood vessels that they took it, and they have to go in through your groin and shut the blood flow off to your kidneys,” he said. “When they shut the blood flow off to your kidneys, that also shuts the blood flow off to your retinas.”

While Grunig survived the surgery, much of his eyesight did not. He is almost completely blind in his right eye and has only about 30-40% of sight in his left eye.

Despite the loss, Grunig still enjoys activities like biking, as he’s able to see the lines on the road.

But that hobby went up in flames with his hearing aids because he could no longer hear the sound of oncoming traffic.

Eventually, though, life improved.

Unable to afford to replace his lost hearing aids, Grunig was connected with The Campaign for Better Hearing. The campaign is a group effort among hundreds of hearing health organizations across the country, offering complimentary hearing tests for those who might benefit.The other part of the campaign is free hearing aids.

“We are able to nominate people every month to receive a free pair of hearing aids based on their needs,” said Kimmy Widell, a hearing care provider at HearingLife in Baxter. “... It’s pretty incredible.”After his fire, the American Red Cross connected Grunig with The Campaign for Better Hearing, and he was chosen for a free pair of hearing aids.


Widell got the honor of fitting him with the new devices.

“To be able to impact somebody’s life — I mean, I do that every day, and that’s why I do it because the look on their face when they hear better, or they hear their loved ones for the first time, that’s one thing,” Widell said. “But to be able to give that gift today was — I mean, I was almost tearing up, and I had to try really hard not to.

“... And Gary, he is just one of the best people. He’s just so kind and so thankful. I don’t think it could have gone to a better person.”

The tears did fall down Grunig’s cheeks as the new hearing aids turned on for the first time.

Gary Grunig covers his face with a tissue in response to getting his new hearing aids as the hearing care provider sits across the table from him.
Gary Grunig, left, gets emotional about receiving new hearing aids, fitted by Kimmy Widell, a hearing care provider at HearingLife of Baxter, Tuesday, April 25, 2023.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

Going a step further, Widell connected them to Grunig’s phone so he can use them to receive calls. She stepped out of the room to call him and test out the technology.

It worked like a charm.

“This means so much to me,” Grunig said while giving Widell a grateful hug.

“It’s been very rough,” Mitchell added, as she and her dad recalled the several weeks of an extremely loud TV and near constant “What did you say?”


“I can’t thank HearingLife enough for this,” Grunig said.

The audiology clinic isn’t the only place Grunig and Mitchell have found kindness since their fire.

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A conversation at the laundromat one day about losing their house resulted in a complete stranger emptying her pockets and giving them money.

“And then she leaves, takes her clothes and comes back later and says, ‘Here, I brought you some more,’” Grunig said. “So I mean, it’s just unbelievable.”

A neighbor helped to look after their rabbits and chickens, and they’ve received assistance buying food for the animals, too.

“The goodness of people comes out when you do have problems most of the time, like this,” Grunig said.

“We didn’t know what we were going to do,” Mitchell added.

Now equipped with brand new hearing aids — the best HearingLife has to offer — Grunig is grateful for every little sound, even if it means hearing his daughter’s snores in the next room.


THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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