"I've had hearing loss almost half my life," says Donna Darch, 63, of Deltona. It started at 36 and became progressively worse. No one knows why.
At the office, Donna noticed co-workers constantly yelling to get her attention, so she visited a specialist, who recommended hearing aids. "They were huge and I didn't want to wear them, so I denied I needed help," she says.
Even after she began wearing hearing aids, she says it was still difficult to hear.
"Friends and family would tell jokes, but I couldn't laugh because I hadn't heard the punch line," says Donna. After repeating themselves multiple times, they'd say, "It wasn't that important. But it was, because I wanted to be included."
"Even my grandchildren didn't understand. Once, my grandson, who was 5 at the time, began spelling words very loudly, thinking that would help," says Donna. "He didn't understand that I wasn't stupid; I just couldn't hear him."
Donna soon became uncomfortable in social situations where people didn't know she was nearly deaf. I began to feel hearing was no longer an option, she remembers.
How Hearing Happens
When sound waves enter the ear canal, they travel to the eardrum. The waves cause the eardrum to vibrate, sending tiny bones in the middle ear into motion. This motion, converted into electric impulses by tiny hair cells inside the inner ear (cochlea), is then sent to the brain and processed as sound.
"As you age, the cochlea may become damaged, no longer converting sound waves into electrical impulses. Sounds may become softer, muffled or garbled, making it hard to interpret speech and noises," says Aftab Patni, MD, board-certified otolaryngologist and fellowship-trained otologist. He's one of a handful of physicians in Central Florida trained to perform adult cochlear implants.
For most, this begins around age 60 and can be treated with hearing aids. For some, it begins much early as was Donna's case is significant enough to require implants.
Finally, Something Changed
"I witnessed a family friend who was deaf begin talking and most importantly understanding," Donna says.
"I thought, He's really hearing!, and upon discovering he had cochlear implants, I wanted them. I went home, researched it online and found Dr. Patni," she recalls. "After being evaluated, I was amazed to learn I was a candidate, and in January 2009 I received an implant in my right ear."
How Cochlear Implants Work
A cochlear implant is a medical device that helps people with moderate-to-profound hearing loss experience hearing. This option is available for those who are no longer receiving significant benefit from traditional hearing aids.
The implant replaces parts of the cochlea that no longer function properly. There are two pieces to the implant the processor worn behind the ear, and the implant placed under the skin also behind the ear, which includes a tiny tube of electrodes inserted into the cochlea.
"The processor captures sounds, filters and processes them into digital information, which is transmitted to the internal implant. This converts digital information into electrical signals sent to the electrode curl inside the cochlea," says Dr. Patni.
The procedure takes about three hours. To allow time for the ear to heal, the external processor is typically turned on four weeks after surgery. An audiologist tests the patients hearing and programs the device based on individual hearing needs.
"This procedure is designed to be permanent, whereas hearing aids must be replaced at least every three to five years," says Dr. Patni.
Life with Cochlear Implants
"After surgery, there was no pain," Donna says. She immediately went back to her normal routine and a month later, when the processor was turned on, she could hear.
"Voices sounded like cartoon characters at first, but within a few months, became normal and clearer. Every day, I worked on my hearing by completing exercises recommended by Dr. Patni that retrained my brain to distinguish sounds. I called my sister and laughed at her jokes. She commented she finally had me back. I could hear birds chirping, kitchen appliances buzzing, faucets running and my grandchildren laughing. I had forgotten what many noises sounded like!" she says.
Donna considers the decision such a success that she's getting an implant in her left ear. I've gotten my life back, and it's a wonderful feeling, she says, smiling.
Originally published: March 1, 2011