Cochlear Implants Bring Sound to Deaf and Severely Hearing Impaired
Born with hearing loss due to a congenital anomaly, Lori Davis relied on hearing aids to understand people and learn to talk. Her hearing progressively worsened, however, until even with hearing aids, she had to resort to lip reading.
Last fall that all changed when Davis was fitted with a cochlear implant.
The 40-year-old Hamilton resident was delighted to hear sounds she had never heard with hearing aids: birds singing, her cat’s surprising assortment of meows, music.
“The first time I heard piano, I didn’t realize how beautiful it was! I almost cried,” she says.
Otolaryngologist Joe VanderMeer, MD, of Lakeshore Health Partners—ENT, explained that cochlear implants mimic natural hearing for deaf or severely hearing-impaired individuals. They do this by providing electrical signals directly to the auditory nerve, bypassing the damaged cochlea that is usually the cause of deafness. The brain recognizes the electrical signals as “sound.” The cochlear implant consists of a tiny, external sound processor worn inconspicuously behind a patient’s ear, and a transmitter that is surgically placed under the skin.
Dr. VanderMeer is one of only two physicians in West Michigan—and the only one in the Lakeshore region—specially trained to implant the state-of-the-art devices. He performed Davis’ two-hour outpatient surgery at Holland Hospital in September. A month later, Davis returned to the Holland ENT office to work with audiologist Mary Van Wieren, who adjusted settings on the implant and helped Davis learn to interpret the new sound signals.
“At first she had trouble distinguishing men’s from women’s voices,” Van Wieren notes. “At her last appointment, she was happy to report that she hears some sounds before her normal-hearing counterparts.” Her word testing scores had tripled, from 26 percent before surgery (with both hearing aids) to 79 percent after.
“People who have lost all or most of their hearing later in life are the most likely to benefit from cochlear implants because they can associate the new sound signals with sounds they remember,” Dr. VanderMeer says.
For Davis, one of the biggest benefits of the cochlear implant is that she can now hear and understand people around her without even looking at them—like her coworkers at Target. “I can listen to them and still keep working. Before I couldn’t do that,” she says. “I can be part of the team and communicate with people.”