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Cochlear implants: a potential solution to hearing loss when hearing aids aren’t enough

 
Wayne Herrick, swimming, touches a dolphin’s chin with his hand.

When the clinician at a hearing aid company first suggested a cochlear implant, Wayne  Herrick had never heard of them. Wayne, a father of three and grandfather of four, had been living with hearing loss since his 20s. Over three decades he had relied on bigger and more powerful hearing aids to help him hear those around him. But hearing aids only amplify the hearing a person has, and Wayne’s ability to hear was lessening every day. Wayne needed a new solution soon, or risk losing his hearing entirely.

What is a cochlear implant?

A cochlear implant

A cochlear implant is an electronic device that bypasses damaged or absent hair cells located in the inner ear, also known as the cochlea. These hair cells normally transmit stimulation to the hearing nerve fibres. When there is significant damage to these hair cells, a cochlear implant may be inserted to artificially bypass the hair cell function.

The technology has advanced over the years.  Now an implant can integrate via Bluetooth to a tv, phone or other device for direct streaming to the implant.

How is a cochlear implant different from a hearing aid?

Hearing aids amplify sounds so they may be detected by damaged ears. Cochlear implants bypass damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve. This reactivates frequencies used in normal speech which have been become dormant with hearing loss.

Graphic of inside a person’s ear showing the receiver, transmitter, speech processor, microphone, middle ear, cochlea (inner ear) and auditory nerve. Graphic showing a closeup view of where the electrode sits in relation to the cochlea
Cochlear implants improve hearing by bypassing damaged portions of the ear and stimulating the auditory nerve directly.

As Wayne’s hearing declined, even with the use of hearing aids, he found himself withdrawing from life.  He found it harder and harder to talk on the phone and participate in meetings at work.

“I just couldn’t function,” he recalled. “My job was dealing with the public and other environmental officers. It was the start of the teleconference era and not being able to see people’s faces or lip read, I was just lost.”

He even found himself pulling away from the people and activities he loved most.

“I didn’t want to talk to anybody,” he said. “No one wanted to talk to me because I couldn’t hear.”

The Cochlear Implant Program at The Ottawa Hospital

Members of the Cochlear Implant Team at The Ottawa Hospital
The team at the Cochlear Implant Program at the Ottawa Hospital is committed to helping every patient optimize their hearing.

The Cochlear Implant Program at the Ottawa Hospital is one of only three programs in Ontario that offers cochlear implant surgery to adults. The program was founded in 1993 and has performed more than 1,000 total surgeries. The program currently receives about 150 referrals per year from audiologists and other hearing professionals in the region.

In addition to their medical expertise, the clinic is well-known for its compassionate care.

“Lots of patients tell us that we’ve become like family. When they come to see us, we will know their name, we will know their story, we will know that they have a grandchild or just had a baby,” said Camille Lacasse, Doctor of Audiology and audiologist at The Ottawa Hospital. “Our door will always be open. We will always make sure to go the extra mile to figure out how to help you.”

Who is eligible for a cochlear implant?

You may be eligible for a cochlear implant if you are receiving limited benefit from hearing aid devices in one or both ears.

Here are some questions to ask yourself.  Even when wearing hearing aid(s):

  1. Am I feeling more isolated because I can’t function as well in noisy places or group settings?
  2. Do I have trouble hearing people on the phone, the television or music?
  3. Do I struggle to understand people when I can’t see their lips (e.g. when they are wearing a mask)?
  4. Do I often ask people to write down what they want to tell me?
  5. Do I have trouble locating where a sound is coming from (e.g. cars, an alarm)?
  6. Am I concerned about my own safety and ability to hear important things?

If you answered “yes” to one or more questions, you may be a candidate for a cochlear implant.  Please contact Shelly Armstrong at sarmstrong@toh.ca for more information.

“What’s that sound?”

Wayne Herrick
Wayne noticed an immediate improvement in his hearing when his cochlear implant was activated at The Ottawa Hospital.

The team of audiologists at the Cochlear Implant Clinic confirmed that Wayne was an excellent candidate for a cochlear implant. He had his first cochlear implant surgery on his left ear in 2011. Patients need to wait four to six weeks for the incision to heal before the implant can be activated, and for Wayne, those six weeks were especially difficult because he had only one hearing aid to rely on.

Once the healing was complete, it was time to activate the implant.

“With the activation, I could hear right away, but it sounded pretty strange,” he said. “ For me everyone sounded like Alvin and the Chipmunks. It was pretty amazing.”

Wayne knew he needed to be patient as he adjusted to the implant, but he noticed some surprising improvements right away.

“My wife was driving me home from my  activation, and I asked her, ‘what’s that sound?’ It was the car’s turn signal!”

Reconnecting with family

Wayne worked with the team at the Cochlear Implant Clinic to fine-tune the implant for him. This is an important step to customize the implant for each patient.  The most dramatic changes are usually felt within the first six months after surgery. But there is one touching moment about one month after the activation that Wayne will never forget.

“I was at an outdoor café with my family to celebrate my birthday, and I felt this little tug on my sleeve. It was my four-year-old grandson. He said, ‘Grandpa, can I please have a piece of cake with roses on it?’ It was the first time I had ever heard my grandson speak.”

Enjoying music again

Wayne went on to have a surgery for a second implant on his right ear in January 2017. As he had hoped, the results were even better than before.

Hearing his family’s voices was one big milestone, but there were many others—he was also beginning to enjoy music again.

“Before my first surgery, my wife and I went to see Elton John in concert, and it was totally a waste of money,” he said.  “I had grown up with that guy so I knew all the songs, but that night I couldn’t tell which one was playing. All I heard was noise.  But since the surgeries, we’ve been to Bryan Adams, Gordon Lightfoot, Burton Cummings, Tina Turner, Chicago—just beautiful!”

Setting realistic expectations

Wayne thinks that with two cochlear implants, his hearing is better than the average person his age. That’s not to say his hearing is perfect.

“I tell people that you’re not going to be able to hear like you did in your 20s,” he said. “If you get 50 percent of your hearing back, that’s going to be a whole lot better than you’ve got now.”

Returning to an active life

Wayne Herrick in Mexico with trees in the background.
Wayne enjoys an active lifestyle and better hearing thanks to his cochlear implants.

With improved hearing, Wayne is eager to return to his active lifestyle that includes playing sports, enjoying international travel, and meeting interesting people.

Wayne is currently the chairperson of a cochlear implant support group, which provides information and support to both potential cochlear implant patients and people who have gone through the surgery. He also volunteers for Cochlear Canada.

“Now I can’t wait to talk to people,” he said. “The implants are totally lifechanging.” 

Wayne says is most appreciative of the professionalism and excellent care he received by Dr Schramm and all of the audiologists at The Ottawa Hospital’s Cochlear Implant Program.  Not only have they restored his hearing, but every month he also has the opportunity to learn how that team has improved the lives of so many.

 
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This website gives you common facts, advice and tips. Some of it may not apply to you. Please talk to your doctor, nurse or other health-care team member to see if this information will work for you. They can also answer your questions and concerns.