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March 22, 2005

Implant gives Mercer speech therapist her hearing back

From: Danville Advocate, KY - Mar 22, 2005

Staff Writer

HARRODSBURG - While waiting for a couple of other speech students to arrive for tutoring at Mercer Elementary, Beth Robison sits in her brightly-colored classroom with a game board in front of her, and asks a soft-spoken third-grader about her weekend. As the girl quietly tells her about attending a swimming party, Robison nods her head as she listens.

Being able to hear this student, who almost speaks in a whisper, is miraculous for Robison, who suffered a steady loss in her hearing for the past several years until she became totally deaf in her left ear a couple of years ago. Now, thanks to a cochlear implant in January 2004, she can hear again - even the softest voices.

Although the teacher loves her students, the voices that motivated her the most to have the surgery were those of her grandson and soon-to-be-born second grandchild.

"That was one of my biggest issues was to want to hear my grandchildren's voices," she says, noting that her grandson, Izaiah, recently turned 1. Her second grandchild is due in May.

Robison says the device that she had implanted to stimulate her hearing nerve is not as easy to adapt to as people might think, but it has allowed her to remain a member of the hearing world - a world she found herself slowly shutting out as her hearing grew gradually worse.

She quit going to her Sunday school class. Drive-thru windows at restaurants were off the list. She ate her lunch alone rather than feel left out of most the conversations with co-workers. Sally Blanton, who has worked with Robison for five years, says Robison increasingly shied away from social situations.

"She would choose not to go eat at a restaurant," she says.

Robison says shutting herself off from people seemed easier than sitting with a puzzled look on her face while others laughed at some joke.

"That's what a hearing loss does, it ostracizes you."

She still has a phobia of using the telephone, but it was strictly off limits before her implant.

"After so many years of not being able to use the phone, I just haven't practiced," she says.

She leaned heavily on her husband, Donnie, to make any doctor's appointments.

She was missing out on what her sons had to say

The mother of two also was missing out on what her sons had to say. Her youngest son, Luke, now a senior at Mercer County High School, was frustrated in trying to make his mother understand.

"I noticed when he would come in to share, he would mostly talk to my husband."

She attended several services to be able to piece together the messages delivered by her oldest son, Matt, youth minister at Southside Christian Church.

"He had graduated from college and was preaching and I couldn't hear him preach."

She also knew that her youngest son was planning on going into the worship ministry to play his guitar and she would miss those concerts. This was not the life she would have chosen.

"I was a very people-oriented person. I was in the church choir. I did a Monday night women's Bible study. I did a lot of things in my church that just dwindled because I couldn't hear."

Robison knew that she had a mild hearing loss as early as the mid-1970s, while earning her degree at Eastern Kentucky University. She couldn't hear the beeps while taking a hearing test.

"I was told at the time that it probably wouldn't get worse. It probably was from listening to loud rock music," Robison says.

She didn't start to worry until the 1990s when she realized that she didn't hear as well. She turned to Caldwell and Cook Hearing Services and was told in 1996 or '97 that she was a perfect candidate for hearing aids.

"It was wild. I could hear things I hadn't heard in forever. ... I was cured."

Her elation was short-lived. A couple of years later, she was having trouble hearing, even with the aids. Vocational Rehabilitation had helped her pay for the first set, but she needed a second, stronger set and was concerned about expense.

"I said, 'Is this going to take care of me until I'm deaf?' They said yes."

She agreed to make appointment to discuss implant

It wasn't long before her hearing was worse. She disliked the thought of it, but agreed to make an appointment at the Kentucky Speech and Hearing Center in Lexington to discuss a cochlear implant.

"They told me my hearing was really bad, but it wasn't bad enough."

A few months later, she lost the hearing in her left ear.

"That was my strongest ear."

At last, by becoming totally deaf, she qualified for an implant. She was told she was a perfect candidate for the implant and was placed on the waiting list.

"That gave me a glimmer of hope because I was hanging by a thread here at work."

She approached the Mercer County superintendent, Bruce Johnson, who as the child of two deaf parents sympathized with her situation.

"He told me he learned to speak by listening to WHAS radio station," she says.

With her superintendent's blessing, she went on a disability leave in September 2003. Her surgeon, Dr. Raleigh Jones, told her she would be able to return to work, but Robison had her doubts.

After receiving the implant, she had to wait a month for her incision to heal before the device could be turned on.

"When they turned it on, I thought, 'Yes, I can hear, but it's a very odd quality of sound,'" she says, describing it as a very mechanical sound, like a computer.

Processor functions like mini-computer

The exterior of the device has a microphone that inserts into the ear. It is attached to a processor, which functions like a mini-computer. The sounds travel down a wire attached to a magnet. The magnet is placed on her scalp and attaches to a magnet in her head. The magnet is attached to a wire inside the cochlear and stimulates a nerve that goes to the brain. The exterior device operates on batteries, which last six hours before needing to be charged.

Robison's audiologist advised her to continue to wear her hearing aid in her right ear.

"I hear with my implant, but my hearing aid makes things sound more natural."

When Robison decided to return to work, she started dropping in a couple of days a week to see how well she could hear her fellow therapists when they worked with the students. Finally, she was ready to return to work.

She is pleased with the results of her surgery and laughs about some of the crazy situations she gets in while wearing the magnets. Going to the bathroom in a tight metal stall can be a real challenge.

"You're leaning over and all the sudden, you're attached to the wall."

She laughs about her husband's good-natured teasing.

"He says, 'Don't get too close to the refrigerator. You're going to be a magnet.'"

For Robison, a few instances of being stuck to the refrigerator are worth the opportunity to rejoin the hearing world.

Copyright The Advocate-Messenger 2005