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June 30, 2004

At age 72, a world of sound opens

From: Catonsville Times, MD - Jun 30, 2004

By Denny Carter

The 17-year cicadas have come and gone four times in the lifetime of Sylvester Kirstukas, 72, but this was the first year he recalls hearing them.

Kirstukas, a long-time Catonsville resident, recently had his hearing restored with a cochlear implant.

He said it was a novelty to be bothered by the cicadas' incessant noise.

A childhood bout with scarlet fever left Kirstukas with a hearing problem that progressively worsened until he was mostly deaf.

"Everyone always told me that nothing would ever help me," he said.

He began wearing a hearing aid in his mid-40s, and that helped a little. But he was still cut off from many sounds that others take for granted.

Now, with his cochlear implant he can talk on the phone, listen to music and much more.

"With the implant, I can do things like watch TV without captions _ it's been really great."

Two years ago, Kirstukas underwent the procedure at Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson. At the time, it was a new offering at GBMC.

Device is implanted

The surgery includes two small devices, with one attached to the skull behind the ear and the other, an electrode, placed in the cochlea. Sound is then picked up by a microphone, which sends the information to the speech processor, allowing the brain to translate the information into a sound.

Kirstukas' damaged hearing affected him in nearly every part of his life for nearly seven decades.

In his 31 years working at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, Kirstukas said his handicapped hearing prevented him from socializing with co-workers much of the time.

"I never went into the cafeteria at work," he said, adding that although he wanted to converse with co-workers, he always had trouble interpreting their words or mouth movements.

Kirstukas' wife, Ann, said the cochlear implant has changed her life too.

"We get together more with friends and family now," she said.

Kirstukas said his wife bore quite a burden before his surgery.

"My wife had to do everything," he said. "I could never do things like make dinner reservations."

Even with his hearing loss, Kirstukas, a father of three, stayed active in the community. He was involved with the Catonsville Midget League for many years, along with an area wrestling team.

Enjoying the grandchildren

Since the surgery, Ann said, her husband has been more involved with his grandchildren.

"He enjoys the grandchildren much more because he can hear what they are saying," she said. "Before, he was more likely to shy away from them."

The couple gave high marks to the GBMC implant team that led them through the process of consultation, surgery and post-operative care.

"They were ideal, just really terrific," Kirstukas said. "It is a really wonderful team they have up there."

His wife added, "They were very passionate, very thoughtful and considerate."

Regina Presley, a cochlear implant audiologist who assisted in Kirstukas' procedure, said emotions run high in the hospital when patients realize their hearing has been dramatically improved.

"Around here, it's hard to find a dry eye in the whole place sometimes," she said.

Some patients, she added, hear for the first time in their whole lives after the surgery.

For Kirstukas, it's relief from decades of frustration and isolation.

"I don't have to sit on the sidelines anymore," he said.

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