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February 4, 2003

Implants restore world of sounds

From: Air Force Link - 04 Feb 2003

by 1st Lt. Jennifer Tay
Wilford Hall Medical Center

02/04/03 - LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas (AFPN) -- Over the past year, surgeons and audiologists at Wilford Hall Medical Center here have restored hearing to 17 people with the help of cochlear implants. These have included an active-duty master sergeant, military children and military retirees.

This revitalized program recently delighted a retiree who wrote that he could not sleep at all the first night after his hearing was "activated." Another 20-year-old patient heard his mother's voice for the first time, since he was born with a hearing disorder. About 24 more patients are scheduled for the life-changing operation over the next eight months.

A cochlear implant is an electro-magnetic amplification device that is surgically implanted within the inner ear and is appropriate for people with profound deafness who no longer benefit from hearing aids. This device is often the only way for these individuals to regain hearing.

The surgery consists of inserting an electrode array into the cochlea (the organ of hearing located in the inner ear) to make direct contact with nerve cells. Patients return one week after the operation for initial stimulation of the device. When the device is turned on, sound is picked up by a tiny microphone connected by a cord to a sound processor outside the ear. The processor turns sound into an electrical signal, transmitting it through the skin to the electrode in the cochlea.

The only one of its kind in the Air Force, the Wilford Hall cochlear implant program provides cochlear implant surgery, audiology and speech services, and medical support for potential candidates and their families.

In December 2001, an active-duty master sergeant with sudden hearing loss was evaluated for a cochlear implant. Master Sgt. John T. Hawk received a cochlear implant and was able to return to his unit and continue performing his assigned duties.

"My new hearing is not perfect," said Hawk, assigned to the Air National Guard Training and Education Center at McGhee Tyson ANG Base, Tenn. "There are still challenges, but I have not completed my journey on the road to recovery yet. Every day I'm reminded of what I've lost because I wake up in a silent world. When I turn on my sound processor, I'm reminded of what I've gained."

In the past when an active-duty airman was diagnosed with profound hearing loss, he or she would be medically retired. Hawk, who is a multimedia course developer and instructor, continues to perform his normal duties while he awaits the result of a medical evaluation board.

Based on his excellent performance with the cochlear implant and his ability to communicate, medical officials believe the program may have saved the Air Force one of its top assets -- an airman with more than 18 years of experience, training and expertise.

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