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November 12, 2005

Surgery gives gift of hearing

From: Fresno Bee (subscription), CA - Nov 12, 2005

Valley's first cochlear implant procedure lets woman hear her grandkids.

By Diwata Fonte / The Fresno Bee

(Updated Saturday, November 12, 2005, 5:32 AM)

PORTERVILLE — Despite having a bevy of hearing aids and a phone so loud that the voice on the other end could be heard from the back yard, Donna Waldrum couldn't hear what she wants to the most: her great-grandchildren.

Then she learned about the new doctor coming to town, bringing with him a big-city procedure that could restore some of her hearing.

"I thought about it, and I thought about it, and then I got to thinking — it would be worth it all if I could hear my kids and my grandkids and my great-grandkids talk to me and understand what they say," she said.

Last month, 75-year-old Waldrum became the first patient to undergo a cochlear implant surgery in the central San Joaquin Valley.

Dr. Mark Reader of Porterville, who relocated from Missouri this summer, implanted a permanent device into Waldrum's skull and inner ear at the Sierra View District Hospital in Porterville. In December, Waldrum is expected to hear her first implant-aided sounds, after Reader fits her with the external portion of the $25,000 device.

"I'm the first one in Porterville to get this done," said Waldrum, recovering from dizziness at her home two miles from the hospital. "I'm hoping it works."

A cochlear implant is an electronic device that can restore a sense of hearing to help people who are completely and severely deaf by bypassing hair cells that have been damaged and destroyed, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

The result is not the same as normal hearing; it is an electronic type of sound, Reader said. Almost 60,000 people around the world have the implants, which cost an estimated $60,000 to implant and to train patients, according to the institute.

Usually, candidates for the surgery are referred to clinics in the Bay Area or Los Angeles.

But Reader, who grew up in Chrisman, Ill., a town of 1,500, said he wanted to move to an area underserved for the type of surgeries he is trained for, such as cochlear implants.

"The big battle probably is convincing people you can get good care in a small town," he said.

He said his family of four considered locations in Minnesota, Tennessee and Texas before deciding on Sierra View in Porterville, which offered incentives such as help with his family's move and office expenses for nine months.

The hospital also bought almost $200,000 in equipment, so Reader could perform the advanced surgeries, said Ron Wheaton, administrative director of professional services and operations.

Sierra View, like many rural hospitals, struggles to attract specialists. Reader will be the second ear, nose and throat specialist in the hospital's service area of 110,000.

Reader, a doctor of osteopathic medicine, completed a five-year ear, nose and throat and facial plastic surgery residency at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Missouri. He served as the residency's program director before completing a one-year fellowship at the Minneapolis Ear, Head, and Neck Clinic.

"You can imagine somebody as qualified as he is, there are lots of opportunities out there for him, all over the United States, so he did his due diligence," Wheaton said.

It took close to a year to recruit Reader to the area, Wheaton said.

While patients have their big-city options, others like the Waldrums said they would never have considered a cochlear implant unless it were available locally.

"We wouldn't even know anything about it," said Donna Waldrum's husband, Ira. "Because all the doctors here said we've done all the things we can do, and the guys we bought the hearing aids from said the same thing."

Waldrum and family members are looking forward to the results.

About 75% can use a conventional phone after the procedure, Reader said.

Waldrum was once a woman to "talk your leg off," said her oldest son, Ralph. She was a good listener who would always give her two cents, he said, but as her hearing got worse, that woman started to change. Waldrum stopped traveling and chatting when she stopped hearing.

"I'd just like to be able to tell her I love her," he said.

In the meantime, Ira Waldrum said communication isn't a problem between the two of them when they stick close together.

"After you've been with someone for 55 years, you kind of know what they are talking about," said Ira Waldrum, 78.

From his armchair, Ira leaned forward on his cane and raised his voice.

"Fifty-five? Or 56?" he hollered to his wife, curled up a few feet away in her bathrobe.

"Fifty-seven," she said.

The reporter can be reached at or (559) 622-2419.

© 2005, The Fresno Bee