IM this article to a friend!

August 31, 2005

Ear implant changes life for educator

From: Billings Gazette, USA - Aug 31, 2005

MSU-Billings News Service

Mild-mannered Sharon Hobbs had become a master of reading human emotions.

That's not the trademark skill of a superhero, but it was a somewhat astonishing feat she used to manage in a world where her hearing was failing her.

And that worked just fine, as long as she could see you.

For years, Hobbs' hearing deteriorated. It had worsened to the point that even her hearing aids had a hard time picking up sounds. She couldn't differentiate between male and female intonation, and conversations with her colleagues and students at Montana State University-Billings were often strained. She opted to teach more online classes because face-to-face instruction in a classroom was getting increasingly more difficult and frustrating.

And being able to fully track discussions in a staff meeting? Forget it.

"You learn early how to have a semi-intelligent look on your face when a conversation is taking place," Hobbs said.

Hobbs has otosclerosis, a hereditary condition that caused severe hearing loss over time. It also caused Hobbs to put on hold dreams of reaching new plateaus in her profession, wondering how long the deterioration would take until she was totally deaf.

She also felt alone.

"People don't realize how isolating it is to be hearing-impaired," she said.

Those emotions turned around in the summer of 2004 when Hobbs, an associate professor of educational theory and practice at MSU-Billings for 10 years, got a cochlear implant.

She's officially now part computer, as a tiny processor helps route sound waves for her right inner ear. She's also embracing some fully human emotions of hope, excitement and anticipation for what the future will bring.

As the new assessment coordinator for the MSU-Billings College of Education, Hobbs will be leading meetings and discussions in preparation for all-important assessment and accreditation visits in the next couple of years.

Being able to clearly hear for the first time in decades makes her elated.

"This has opened up all kinds of opportunities for me," she said. "I knew I had the ability to do well with a leadership role, but I just couldn't do it (because of the hearing loss)."

Like the operating system of the rest of the body, hearing is a wonderfully complex and virtually instantaneous course of events.

The ear converts sound waves into electrical signals and causes nerve impulses to be sent to the brain where they are interpreted as sound.

Think of it as three guys (outer, middle and inner ear) on a bucket brigade to the brain.

Sound waves (in this case the bucket) pass from the outer ear to the middle ear, where the action causes the eardrum to vibrate. The vibrations are transmitted through three tiny bones in the middle ear called the ossicles (known as the hammer, anvil, and stirrup). The eardrum and ossicles (the second guy) moves the vibrations to the fluid in the inner ear.

The vibrations move through the fluid in the snail-shaped hearing part of the inner ear (cochlea) that contains the hair cells. The fluid in the cochlea moves the top of the hair cells, which initiates the changes that lead to the production of the nerve impulses. This would be represented by the third guy delivering the bucket so that the brain can make sense of things.

The nerve impulses are carried to the brain, where they are interpreted as sound. Different sounds stimulate different parts of the inner ear, allowing the brain to distinguish among various sounds, for example, the difference between a long A or a sharp P sound.

In Hobbs' case, she noticed something was amiss when she worked as an ad sales representative at a radio station in Wichita, Kan., in her early college days. She was recording a sound track for an ad one day when she noticed she couldn't hear the sound coming back to her through the headphones.

She asked the engineer to check the sound, who said everything was working.

From that point on, and through a series of hearing aids, she learned to adjust and cope.

Doug Rehder, of Rehder Hearing Clinic in Billings, talked to Hobbs about the possibility of getting a cochlear implant. The costly (estimated at about $40,000) procedure was promising but not guaranteed.

After some difficulties with insurance coverage, Hobbs made arrangements to get her bionic ear.

The cochlear implant attempts to restore hearing by delivering electrical stimulation directly to the nerve, bypassing the damaged structures in the inner ear. The device is essentially two parts: an internal implant with an electrode that reaches into the inner ear and external devices that require fitting and programming. Cochlear implants are considered the only medical treatment for severe or profound hearing loss.

The only specialist in Montana, Wyoming or Idaho who could do the surgery was Dr. Peter Von Doersten in Missoula. Hobbs had the surgery in July 2004.

After six weeks of recovery, the processor was programmed or "mapped" to meet Hobbs' hearing needs.

She noticed the changes immediately, but they were different than she expected.

"Everyone sounded like Walter Matthau," she said.

The sound processor picks up signals that are gathered by a microphone about the size of a 50-cent piece that attaches magnetically to the outside of Hobbs' skull. It fits behind her ear and under her hair. If you didn't see the narrow cable running into the processor on her belt, you would never know she had anything there.

The processor converts the sounds into specific digital codes that then travel back up the cable and to the headpiece. The headpiece then transmits the signal through the skin and to the implant, which delivers via the hairlike implant an array of electrodes positioned in the cochlea.

The electrodes do the nerve stimulation job that a normal cochlea would perform, and the brain does the interpretation.

Hobbs now looks forward to new challenges that aren't limited by hearing loss.

"I don't have to wait for a continuous deterioration of my hearing," she said. "It's pretty amazing."

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.