Cochlear Implants: A Personal Account

Cochlear Implants: When Hearing Aids Are Not Enough -- a Personal Account

By Max S. Chartrand Ph.D.

DigiCare Founder Max Chartrand's enlightening personal account of receiving his cochlear implants

Some years ago, a doctor friend of mine lost his eyesight while attending medical school. Undaunted, he took advantage of every available assistive device in the current armamentarium: Braille, big print computer, wearable binoculars at public events, and ... his hearing ability. He depended upon his hearing like the proverbial bat.

One day, as we were traveling together, he said sympathetically, "Max, I feel sorry for you."

"Why, Allen," I replied, "I was just feeling sorry for you! You can't even see to drive!"

"That's true," he said, "but at least I can hear. I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't hear, especially on the phone. Your burden is bigger than mine."

Strange, I thought. Until I recalled a similar observation by one who was deaf and blind, a great modern day thinker, Helen Keller. "Deafness is a worse misfortune," said she, "for it means the loss of the most vital stimulus the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir, and keeps us in the intellectual company of man."

Having traveled the deleterious road to deafness for nearly five decades, starting with profound mid-to-high frequency loss into a "corner audiogram," my world quietly and insidiously disappeared, leaving behind horrendous ringing, buzzing, and noises of every sort. Frustration, dwindling opportunities, and labored human relationships.

Nearly ten years ago I hit the end of the road. Literally. Like a brick wall. Amplification would not do it anymore, no matter how loud. Besides, severe recruitment (abnormal loudness growth) and diplacusis (cochlear distortion) rendered what could be heard virtually unusable, if not intolerable, most of the time when in public.

Speechreading, relay services, a strobe-light alarm clock, closed captioning, an FM system, and just plain old guessing kept me afloat ... to a degree ..for awhile.

A good friend Thomas Mitchell, who began his professional career with my practice years ago, started working for Cochlear Corporation in 1986, the people who brought us the first multi-channel cochlear implant.

Year after year, he encouraged me to take the plunge. But I resisted. Though a long-time professional in the hearing health field, I was like most of my colleagues ... about ten years behind on cochlear implants! ... Experimental, single channel, percutaneous plug, long recovery, infections, environmental noise awareness, no speech discrimination. Or so I thought. I was wrong and woefully out of date.

At Thomas's urging, I called Dr. Fred Owens' office at Baylor Medical Center in Dallas in September 1993 via TTY relay. He was booked solid for two months.

"But, I can't wait that long," I told the receptionist "never mind that I'd been putting off this call for years!" Can't he see me like... next week?"

A compromise. He could see me in two weeks at nine o'clock in the morning. Sharp.

Two weeks and ninety miles later, I found myself in his office. First, a thorough audiological work-up. Then, on to an associate of Dr. Owens' for the

physical examination, explaining the implant procedure, etc. Finally, Dr. Owens, one of the masters of cochlear implantation, made his grand entrance. With little hesitation he announced, "I believe you'll do very well with the implant. Are you ready to go forward?"

Affirmative. My question was, when could I take time out of my busy schedule to have the surgery? Not to worry, after the MRI, ENG, and promontory tests, the answer would be, "The sooner the better!"

December 15, pre-op. I'm ready for surgery. No complications, some post operative vertigo; "that too shall pass." Hospital stay: 36 hours.

Though back to work in only three days, the most challenging part of recovery was the anticipation while awaiting hook-up, January 10.

The hook-up was a strange experience. Hearing electrical stimulation (versus sound per se) was a little like wandering around in Alien Nation until sounds became more natural sounding to the brain. Of course, today, with the new Spectra processor, sound is so much richer and more natural that many new users report far shorter and less strange acclimation periods.

One of the most important lessons I have learned in two and a half years of cochlear implant use and subsequent upgrade to the Spectra processor,is that one's "learning curve" continually rises as technology advances. Especially in noisy situations, my ability to understand speech has dramatically improved with the newer processor, and continues to do so.

Currently, my speech recognition in quiet with the implant alone stands at about 68 percent, and 74 percent when wearing a hearing aid in the non-implanted side (pre-op discrimination was zero percent!).

By using a hearing instrument with the implant, I experience "summation" (stronger, fuller sound), "binaural squelch ability" (suppressing background noise  while listening to speech), and somewhat limited "localization" ability (ascertaining direction of sound.)

Although there's no appreciable hearing in my non-implanted ear, by wearing the hearing aid in that ear I experience-no doubt through tactile reinforcement-a feeling of wholeness, and of being a part of the environment.

After a year or so, I also began noting many "non-acoustical benefits" of the implant too numerous to list here. But I'll try:

  • Feeling part of the hearing world again.
  • Less tension in social settings.
  • Improved bonding with family.
  • Less hassles while traveling.
  • Making many new friends.
  • Renewing old friendships.
  • Intellectual stimulation, more "input" from life.
  • Finishing doctorate, graduating with honors.
  • Significantly increased professional opportunities.
  • Function in previously impossible settings.
  • Never missing an elevator again!

And, of course, there's the telephone. A while back I called home and our youngest answered, "Hello, Chartrand residence." "Ben?" I asked.

"Yes, Dad ... un, oh, is this ... relay? How are you hearing me without relay. Dad?"

"It just keeps getting better, Ben. Not perfect, but better." And, to my blind friend who felt so sorry for me not many years ago, I can say, "It keeps getting better, Alien. Not perfect, but better."

Cochlear Launches Consumer Education Programs

As of September 1995, thousands of severe-to-profoundly hearing-impaired postlinguistic adults in the U.S., who've hit the end of the road with hearing aids alone (40% or lower in open-set sentence recognition scores), .may now be considered for candidacy for the Nucleus cochlear implant system.

At the same time, Cochlear Corporation began two public education and implant referral programs, headed by Dr. Max Chartrand. The Cochlear Associates Program (CAP) and Cochlear Network Audiologists (CNA) together form a tuny-supported network of private practice audiologists, hearing instrument specialists, and allied hearing professionals who are organized and prepared to reach potential cochlear implant candidates.

CAP and CNA are coordinated consumer education programs prepared to provide the latest information on the Nucleus 22 channel system- Located in nearly every community in the U.S., member professionals are ready to review individual hearing status, and make referrals to the nearest qualified implant center.