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August 29, 2005

Cochlear implant fills her heart with music

From: Salt Lake Tribune, United States - Aug 29, 2005

Inspiration: After decades of deafness, Mary Beth Green took action after seeing a passionate performance by an Irish tenor


Implant brings sound back to life

By Greg Lavine
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune

Mary Beth Green still remembers a life-altering experience she had while watching a PBS program six years ago.

"There was this Irish tenor on TV," Green recalled, "and he touched my heart."

What made this revelation unusual is that she never heard a single note bellowing from Ronan Tynan. Green had spent the previous 40 years in a world of silence, but watching the tenor's passion as he sang inspired her to do something about her profound deafness.

"I had to hear this man," she said.

Friends told her she may be a good candidate for a cochlear implant, a device that stimulates the inner ear to send sound signals to the brain.

Green, of Salt Lake City, considered the surgery, but worried because a relative had died from a brain tumor. She didn't want doctors messing around with her head.

Green lost her hearing as a teenager in a matter of hours, and her sudden deafness stumped her doctors.

Through the next four decades of her life, she could still speak, but was unable to hear anything until the Irish tenor led her to take a chance to bring sound back into her life.

The surgery involves attaching a thin electrical device to the cochlea, which resembles a snail's shell inside the ear, said Lisa Dahlstrom, a University Hospital audiologist.

Green is one of about 60,000 people worldwide who have benefitted from cochlear implants, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

"It bypasses the inner ear and directly stimulates the nerves," which in turn signals the brain, Dahlstrom said.

Not every kind of hearing problem is fixable through this or other types of surgical implants.

Cochlear implants are typically reserved for those with severe to profound deafness, in situations where traditional hearing aids don't work. When taking into account surgical expenses, the cost of the device and other factors, the total bill can run as high as $70,000, Dahlstrom estimated.

Other options can include a middle ear implant - which can cost up to $10,000 between surgery and equipment expenses - that bypasses the damaged middle ear area.

Another option is the bone anchored hearing aid. This involves planting a metal fixture in the skull that can have a sound processor attached. The signal is sent through the bones of the head using vibrations.

In Green's case, doctors saw the cochlear implant as the best bet.

Her doctors warned her that voices would sound alien at first. Green quipped that this was all right, since she had never heard any aliens.

California surgeons began installing the cochlear implant in December 1999 and turned the device on in January 2000.

"Oh my God, I can hear my voice," she repeated to herself.

Then she noticed a strange voice - Green couldn't tell if it was male or female - calling her name. She turned around to see her father speaking her name, crying at the sight of his daughter being able to hear again.

Dahlstrom said it can take up to a year to train your brain how to hear again using such cochlear implants.

Green now puts her hearing to good use with the Utah Public Service Commission, where she helps match hearing- or visually-impaired Utahns with modified communication devices.

That new hearing also gets put to the test outside of work.

Thanks to her cochlear implant, Green saw - and heard - the "Lord of the Rings" movie seven times with a grandchild.

Green also has several decades of music to catch up on. From country to musical sound tracks, she now dabbles in a wide range of music.

But that Irish tenor still holds a special place in her heart since the day of her surgery.

"That night, I heard my Irish tenor sing Amazing Grace," she said. "You can't get any better than that."