It turns out I chose a very emotionally rewarding profession.
The other day I received a letter from a patient of mine who had had a cochlear implant. She was writing to tell me that she was blowing out the 5th anniversary candles of her surgery – her ‘rebirth’ as a hearing person. Another patient of mine, who became progressively deaf with each pregnancy, told me that she was able to hear her son’s voice for the first time ever after receiving her cochlear implant when her son was 8 years old! Her implant surgery was done nearly 10 years ago, and she loves dancing to Christmas music. I saw a little boy in the office whom I implanted several months ago. It’s a good thing I keep tissue boxes in the rooms, since his new amazing speech and conversation brought tears of joy to my eyes!
Cochlear implants are for patients who have severe to profound hearing loss in both ears, and cannot benefit from hearing aids. Until relatively recently, those patients had no chance of entering the hearing world. They either joined the Deaf world and became fluent in sign language, and/or they became great face readers and used a variety of different visual cues in order to participate in Hearing life. Then, in the 1960s, two brilliant and forward thinking pioneers of hearing restoration, Dr. Graeme Clarke in Australia and Dr. William House in Los Angeles, CA, decided to change that. Apparently they were almost considered heretics at the beginning – imagine thinking you could stick an electrode in the inner ear and the patient would hear! – but those initial naysayers were proven wrong. About 100,000 people around the world have received cochlear implants, enabling these profoundly deaf people to hear.
But it’s not just the miracle of cochlear implants that I can use to help people to hear.
There’s a disease called otosclerosis that causes the third tiny bone in the middle ear (the stapes or stirrup) not to move properly. Most of these patients can benefit from stapedectomy surgery that restores normal middle ear bone functions and restores hearing over 95% of the time. This is, I must say, one of the most fun and challenging operations that I perform. In under 45 minutes, I can take someone from being hearing-impaired to normal hearing! I had one patient undergo stapes surgery in October one year, and that year for the holidays she was inundated with hearing-themed presents – an ipod, CDs, etc. A number of my stapes surgery patients have commented that they didn’t realize how much they were missing due to their hearing loss, until after their surgeries!
There’s something called Idiopathic Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (ISSHL or SSNHL) which is a sudden loss of nerve hearing in one or (rarely) both ears with no clear cause. You might imagine how devastating this would be to someone. I became very interested in the treatment of this problem many years ago, after reading Dr. Lorne Parnes of Canada’s research on the subject. Since you have to be an expert at something, I guess this is one of my claims to fame…. Over the past decade or so, a number of physicians (myself included) have seen that we can restore full or at least partial hearing in a large percentage of patients with SSNHL if we treat them aggressively early on. The treatment involves at least oral steroids, and often an injection of steroids into the affected ear, and may be some other medications. I consider SSNHL a true otologic (ear-related) emergency and am really aggressive about treating it. It is really an amazing feeling to have helped someone regain this vital sense!
There are other things that are done for hearing restoration – surgical, medical, and device-related. You can read about them within my website under the Symptoms tab.
The more I do this, the more I realize how important a gift hearing is. So, as this year winds down, I urge you to protect your hearing. Avoid loud noise exposure: wear ear plugs if you’re going to a concert or using power tools. If you use a personal music device such as an ipod, turn the bass up and the volume down. You’ll still enjoy the vibrations of the music without hurting your delicate inner ear hair cells. Avoid toxins that can cause or increase hearing loss, such as many illegal drugs as well as caffeine and nicotine. Antioxidants, such as are found in fresh vegetables and at health food stores, are hearing-protective. Exercise well – it helps your ears too!
Please accept my wishes for a melodious holiday season and a new year filled with health and happiness.
Sujana Chandrasekhar, MD