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November 26, 2004

Ear implant offers new beginning

From: Gainesville Sun, Fl - Nov 26, 2004

Sun medical writer

For 92-year-old Walter Sieger, an invisible wall of deafness had reduced his world to the confines of his Daytona Beach home, where for more than 20 years, he'd been living with silence.

"When my wife died a number of years ago, neighbors and friends would invite me to dinner or parties," Sieger said. "But I got tired of not being able to hear them, and they probably got tired of hearing me screaming at them. So I went into a shell."

Sieger left that shell behind recently when he received a cochlear implant at Shands at the University of Florida. Thanks to this new technology, he has regained much of his hearing - and his zest for life.

Hearing loss is one of the most common conditions affecting elderly adults, with one in three people over the age of 60 (and half those over 85) experiencing partial to total loss of hearing function.

Like Sieger, a growing number of seniors are opting for high-tech solutions like cochlear implants to improve their hearing and their quality of life, said Dr. Patrick Antonelli, chairman of the department of otolaryngology in UF's College of Medicine.

Antonelli is the surgeon who installed Sieger's cochlear implant.

"When a senior loses any form of communicative ability - including the ability to hear - a barrier is created between them and the rest of the world," Antonelli said. "Hearing loss is a life-altering experience, especially for an individual who has had normal hearing for decades."

Antonelli said the words of his great-grandmother, who lived to the age of 98, ring particularly true in the age of modern medicine.

"She said if she'd known she'd live that long, she would have fixed a lot of things - her knees, her eyes - back when she was in her early 80s."

Today's technology makes that increasingly possible. Take the cochlear implant, for example. According to the Food and Drug Administration, more than 13,000 adults in the United States now have an implant, along with 10,000 children.

Cochlear implants are small, complex devices that create sound for a person who is deaf or extremely hard of hearing. Unlike a hearing aid, which amplifies sound, a cochlear implant compensates for damaged or non-working parts of the inner ear.

An external component, worn behind the ear, collects sound through a microphone and translates it into electrical signals through a speech processor, which the patient wears on a belt or in a pocket.

These signals are then transmitted through the skin to a surgically implanted device where signals stimulate the auditory nerve fibers of the middle ear, sending information to the brain to be interpreted as meaningful sounds.

The implant surgery takes two to three hours under general anesthesia, Antonelli said.

"Many patients can use a hearing aid to hear sounds, but cannot discriminate between them very well, due to some common problems within the inner ear which cannot be rehabilitated with standard applications," the surgeon said.

A patient with that kind of hearing problem who is also healthy enough to undergo the surgical procedure would be the ideal candidate for a cochlear implant, according to Antonelli.

"Other factors, like age, general health, length of time with hearing loss and a good support network of family and friends, go into determining whether a patient is suitable for cochlear implants," said Alice Holmes, the professor of audiology in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions that has "fine tuned" Sieger's implant over several post-surgery visits.

Sieger said he'd lost hearing on one side in a shooting accident, where he fired his gun close to his ear without putting in earplugs. Gradually, he began to lose hearing in his "good" ear, as well.

He'd tried hearing aid after hearing aid without success. He heard noise, but wasn't able to understand what people were saying to him.

"For too many years, I was willing to accept the fact that my hearing was gone," he said.

Antonelli said that most insurers will cover the cost of a cochlear implant. Sieger estimated that cost at $60,000.

Sieger, who lives alone, says it has been worth it.

"I can listen to the car radio, and follow Tom Brokaw on the nightly news," he said. "I can go out to dinner with friends again. I'd forgotten what little things - like the rain and birds chirping - sound like. This is like a new lease on life for me."

His message for others like him? "Look at me. I'm 92 years old, but I can hear. There's no reason some people should have to live in silence, with the new things that have been developed in medicine today."

Diane Chun can be reached at 374-5041 or chund@

© Copyright 2004, The Gainesville Sun