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November 25, 2003

Implant restores instructor's hearing

From: United States Air Force (press release) - Nov 25, 2003

By Dewey Mitchell
Wilford Hall Medical Center Public Affairs

11/24/2003 - LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas (AFPN) -- After serving 22 years on active duty, retired Maj. Robert Graves was stricken with sudden hearing loss in 1990.

"I woke up, and everyone sounded like they were a block away in a tunnel even though they were in the same room with me," he said.

Stationed at Kelly Air Force Base, Texas, at the time, he found out five weeks later that he was suffering from an autoimmune disorder, where the immune system attacks part of the body.

One year later, Graves failed a physical and was medically retired with 60-percent hearing loss.

His medical care continued with Veterans Affairs, who raised his hearing disability to 100 percent in 1997. He said he could not communicate except in face-to-face situations, where he could read lips.

He was referred back to Wilford Hall Medical Center here in 2002 for cochlear-implant surgery.

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

Members of Wilford Hall Medical Center evaluate all potential candidates to determine hearing status, speech ability, social and psychological concerns and surgical compatibility. A battery of tests is required to determine cochlear-implant candidacy, officials said.

Before Graves' cochlear implant Jan. 8, he said he could only decipher three words out of a list of 50. In his first follow-up after the implant, he could decipher 35 words out of 50.

"The first words shocked me (because) they were so loud and clear. Hearing aids were loud, but not clear. The difference is night and day," Graves said.

"It's not a perfect reproduction of the human voice," he said. "People have to give the brain time to adapt to the new sounds. It's almost like a voice in your brain, because you don't have your eardrum vibrating as with normal hearing."

Graves, who has been an Air Force civilian employee since 1992, said the implant has changed his life for the better. He is the chief of the 342nd Training Squadron's training development element of security-forces training.

"My whole persona has (gone) back to the old Rob Graves -- optimistic (and) career-minded," he said. "Now 90-percent of all I hear sounds normal. This gives me clear speech understanding.

"It gave me my life back," he said, remembering a recent occasion where he sat in the back of an auditorium and understood the commander during a commander's call for the first time since 1990.

"Music is the hardest thing to adapt to. At first with the implant, music sounded terrible, but now it sounds more like before," Graves said. He also said that telephones plug into the implant directly, and he can now use a cell phone with almost no difficulty.

Outside the military, cochlear implants cost almost $40,000, and many insurers do not cover the procedure.

For anyone considering getting an implant, Graves said they should go in for an evaluation to make an informed decision.

© 2003 United States Air Force