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May 1, 2004

Tears accompany a joyful sound

From: Albany Times Union, NY - May 1, 2004

Albany -- Man hears for the first time from both ears after surgery

By MATT PACENZA, Staff writer
First published: Saturday, May 1, 2004

With his Harley-Davidson belt, Arctic Cat T-shirt and muscled arms, Glen Berry doesn't look like a man who cries very often.

But when audiologist Sharon Rende turned on his new hearing devices Friday at the Capital Region Otolaryngology Group office in Albany, the 38-year-old's eyes shone like those of a young child on Christmas morning.

Who could blame him? It was the first time Berry had heard anything since October, when the limited hearing he had with the help of a hearing aid suddenly disappeared.

Friday, for the first time in his life, the Dutchess County man could really hear, on both sides.

After Rende activated the cochlear implants -- the first to be put in both the right and the left ears of a patient in the Capital Region -- here's what Berry heard first, as the tears welled.

"Can you hear me yelling at you?" asked his mother, Joanne Berry, teary and laughing. "I'll be getting you now."

Several weeks ago, Berry had implants that can electrically stimulate his hearing nerves surgically inserted. Friday, Rende fit him with a small device that resembles a hearing aid on each ear.

The device picks up sound with a tiny microphone, translates those sounds into electric signals and then agitates his auditory nerves through the implants.

More than 23,000 people in the United States have cochlear implants, according to the Food and Drug Administration. But until very recently, they've been put in just one ear because researchers believed that one was enough.

"But now we've recently learned there's a significant advantage to having two instead of one," said Dr. David Foyt, a neurootologist who founded the clinic's cochlear implant practice.

There are about 300 people in the world, like Berry, who have had bilateral implants, according to Cochlear Americas, the leading manufacturer of the devices. The first such two-sided implantation was in 2002.

Including the devices, surgery and therapy, the total bill for the two implants -- which Berry's insurance is covering -- is about $75,000 to $80,000.

As Rende tested and activated Berry's implants, a wide range of emotion crossed the carpenter's face: apprehension, frustration, wonder, fear and puzzlement.

"I hear talking," he told his audiologist at one point. "It's not like clear."

"It's going to sound funny," she reminded him. "Kind of like raindrops on the roof."

As Rende fine-tuned the devices, Berry's comprehension grew. Later, he remarked excitedly, "I can hear good."

"He's hoping he can hear well enough to go turkey hunting tomorrow," said his mother.

Berry has had very limited hearing since birth, because of a sensory-neural condition that's genetic or that arose while he was in the womb. For most of his life, a hearing aid in his right ear helped. He's a proficient lip-reader and knows sign language.

Some of the deaf have rejected cochlear implants, arguing that they prefer deaf culture and community be based on sign language.

But many others, like Berry, are choosing the implants.

"It's amazing to hear on both sides," Berry said softly, his head turning to track his mother's voice.

In the coming months, Berry's comprehension will grow, as his nerves and brain grow accustomed to the devices. It's not yet known how well he will hear someday, but as the technology improves, so do outcomes, according to Foyt.

"A few years ago, we were happy if a patient could hear a door slam," Foyt said. "Now they're using cellphones and listening to Mozart."

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2004, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.