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July 10, 2005

Cochlear implant patients picnic at hospital

From: Iowa City Press Citizen, IA - Jul 10, 2005

Device restores hearing, improves quality of life

By Adam Pracht
Iowa City Press-Citizen

Talking in the car after dark was impossible; attending a play or seeing a movie was difficult; and using a regular telephone was downright unthinkable.

Carol Burns, a Wisconsin resident, had to wear a hearing aid at 5 years old and had profound hearing loss by age 15. She learned to read lips, but it was useless if it was dark or those lips were too far away. It was as though everyone else experienced a reality apart from hers, she said.

But at the age of 51, almost nine years ago, she received a device called a cochlear implant. And she could hear again.

"You are talking to someone who is totally deaf," she said. "Totally deaf. This is a miracle beyond description."

With the implant, she heard her granddaughter on the telephone; and though she was too far away to read lips, she heard her daughter thank her family as she received her nursing pin.

"I get goose bumps when I think about it," she said.

Burns, a volunteer for Cochlear Amercias -- one company that creates the implant -- attended a reunion Saturday of about 40 patients who had received the implant at University Hospitals and 100 to 120 of their friends and family. More than 700 children and adults have had the implants at the hospital since the technology was introduced in 1982.

Gareth Smith is a project assistant in the UI Department of Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery Institute. He organized the event this year, which the hospital offers about every two years.

He said the food, swimming, rock wall, snow cones and balloon animals were all to say "thank you" to the patients for helping the doctors to innovate and improve the technology.

The device works best on children or older adults who lose their hearing and have some speech recognition. It also works best if the auditory nerve is intact, Smith said.

During the procedure, a strip of electrodes is inserted into snail shaped cochlea in the inner ear. Usually the cochlea is filled with tiny hairs that send signals to the brain, but the implant takes their place if they're damaged or gone.

A small microphone worn over the ear feeds back to a tiny FM transmitter that sends signals to the internal portion of the device located under the skin behind the ear. It in turn sends signals to the electrodes in the cochlea.

While the result isn't perfect, for most it's near enough, Smith said. It can still be hard to differentiate voices from background noise, he said, and music is difficult to hear because of its complexity.

But that isn't holding back Tim Brandau, 21, a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in biomedical engineering with the goal of going into cochlear implants. He was the first child to receive an implant at University Hospitals in 1987 at age 4 years.

Music is an integral part of Brandau's life -- he's played alto saxophone for 12 years and participates in the Hawkeye Marching Band.

"I'm very lucky," he said. "I'm very grateful for the opportunities I've been given."

Dorothy Howlett, 59, of Rock Island, Ill., got a fresh opportunity to hear with a cochlear implant after she suddenly and inexplicably lost her hearing at 45 years old. She lost friends along with 95 percent of her hearing.Patricia Gore of Moline, Ill., Howlett's daughter, said she watched her mother go into a shell as she lost her hearing. She said it was difficult to find the time to even converse on the phone using a service to convert speech to text.

Now telephone conversations are simple, and Howlett heard her grandson for the first time saying, "Bye, bye," when doctors first tested the implant.

"It's a miracle," Howlett said.

Reach Adam Pracht at 339-7360 or

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