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by Nancy Grindle Correspondent · March 2nd, 2017


Many people suffer from hearing loss, which can range from mild to profound. However, three generations, all from the same local family, have overcome their hearing obstacles and are delighted to share their miraculous story.

They hope others will become more aware of hearing problems and deafness. They also hope to promote ear and hearing care.

It seems particularly fitting to tell their story this week as Friday, March 3, is International Hearing Day. And this writer, who has a hearing loss, is honored to have the opportunity to write about their experiences.

In the Beginning

The story begins with a Marion gentleman named Howard Powers, age 93. Howard has a farm a little ways north of Marion. By the time he was 10 years old, Howard was aware that he couldn't hear well. He said he couldn't play "whisper-in-your-ear" kinds of games with his friends.

However, Howard loved music. He sang and whistled while he did farm chores and later, despite his loss, sang solos, was in a barbershop group, and played the piano and organ by ear.

Howard was told that his situation was genetic and hearing aids wouldn't help him. He tried them awhile. But he eventually quit music and went for decades without the musical activities he loved. He was resigned to becoming completely deaf eventually.

The diagnosis is called dominant progressive hearing loss (DPHL) and it comes from a parent. In Howard's case, his father was the parent and the condition affected his brother, too.

His brother's daughter is a doctor. She encouraged them to check for a possible DNA connection. Sure enough, the culprit was a DNA element called Homer 2. Once it was confirmed, other family members underwent DNA testing.

During early research, scientists and doctors thought the situation with Homer 2 might be gender-specific. However, further testing showed that it was not. (See chart graphic.)

Howard helped with further research. He regularly sent blood samples to the Boys' Town Hospital in Omaha, where work was underway to learn more about Homer 2. He also was meshed in with the University of Iowa Hospitals.

Audiologists ran many tests to determine the extent of Howard's hearing loss. Among those tests were ones regarding what volume and frequencies he could hear. After the tests, he sat with the audiologists and watched them map the data on their computer screens.

They found that hearing aids, which simply make sounds louder, did not help Howard that much - as he already knew. Next came the cochlear implant for both him and his daughter Debb Thein, who lives in Belle Plaine.

Hannah Rimar, an associate for Health and Wellness Communications Strategy Group of Denver, New York, and Chicago, told us about the kinds of implant systems Howard, Debb, and Carissa received.

First, not just everyone who has a slight hearing loss can skip over hearing aids and go to a cochlear implant. There are very specific criteria that have to be met to be a candidate.

Rimar said Howard and Debb are Cochlear Nucleus System recipients. Howard has just one implant, and it is in his left ear. He got it when he was age 85.

Debb has a cochlear implant in each ear. The first was placed in her right ear eight years ago, and the left one five years ago.

Their particular hearing implants have two main parts. The first is an external sound processor consisting of two microphones which sit behind the ear. These capture sounds, convert the sounds to digital data and transmit the data to the internal implant, an electrode surgically placed in the inner ear's cochlea. Sound signals then go to the brain.

However, you hear with both your ears and your brain. So a big part of the process after an implant involves retraining both.

Some of Howard's retraining took place at the U of Iowa. He told about some of that work, which involved listening to passages of music played by nine different instruments. He was to try to identify which instrument made which sound. He says he had never heard some of the instruments before.

In addition, Howard got a keyboard, since he could play by ear. He found that he was able to recognize some songs on his grandson's musical toy, which he had learned many years before.

An interesting event happened to Howard at granddaughter Carissa Lala's church. At a silent auction held there, he won a two-hour session at a recording studio. He recorded five hymns and two other favorite songs, unaccompanied.

During the session, he sang the melody and then each harmony part. One of the men from the studio tried to synchronize the parts, but had trouble doing so. However, a second man ended up helping get them synchronized, and Howard now has a permanent record of his singing.

Just recently, he whistled "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a meeting of a community organization.

Howard noted, though, that he has to sing without an accompanying instrument. He laughed and said, "What goes in isn't what comes out."

Debb also has a keyboard. However, after her implant, she concentrated on training herself in speech recognition so she could hear over the telephone. One of her biggest frustrations had been at her job in medical billing. Before her implant, she frequently had to tell people on the phone that she was unable to hear them and could they please repeat or talk louder or more precisely.

Now, that has changed. In addition, Debb especially enjoys going to her grandchildren's band and choir concerts. She occasionally listens to CDs.

Carissa Lala is Debb's daughter and Howard's granddaughter. Her situation is somewhat different, and her implant is a refined version, thanks to continued research. She has a cochlear Nucleus Hybrid Implant System. It combines acoustic amplification with the external processor and electrode in the cochlea.

Sound is captured by the sound processor sitting behind the ear. It is turned into digital information and goes to the internal implant, which like the others, sends signals to the brain. But at the same time, the acoustic component amplifies any sounds she hears naturally and sends them through the ear canal along the regular hearing pathway.

Carissa first concentrated on speech recognition after her implant, because she needed that for her job with special education children at Vernon Middle School in Marion. She also likes to listen to CDs and she plays the piano.

Carissa shared how she felt before her implant:

"Before my cochlear, I stayed home a lot. I did not like going out. I did not want to be in a situation where someone would talk to me and I would not understand them. I got hearing aids when I was 12 and I wouldn't wear them. People have such a stigma with being different."

Today it is hard to believe Carissa was ever like that. She is very outgoing and positive, vibrant and confident. She put it in these words:

"Since my cochlear, I have had the courage to step out of my comfort zone. Since activation, I have become more active at church. I have volunteered at the First Lutheran Church with meals for those in need. I went on a mission trip to Puerto Rico without my family to listen and talk for me. I have become the chairperson for the church board."

"I now embrace my hearing loss, meaning I am no longer ashamed or embarrassed by it.

"I think I can speak some for all three of us in that we are no longer scared to talk to others like we were before implantation. Our quality of life has improved."

Carissa made the most memorable comment during the whole interview, a comment that will stay with us forever.

She said, "My biggest fear was the day I could no longer hear my husband and my children's voices, or laughter. Now with my cochlear, I can hear my children and my husband (with my eyes closed, so not reading their lips) tell me they love me, as long as my cochlear is on.

"THAT makes surgery, the work of retraining my brain - all of that is worth it!"
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