As Don Lynch lay sleeping in his apartment six years ago, a carelessly tossed cigarette butt by a stranger had ignited an inferno. While the building’s fire alarms were working, their ear-piercing frequency did nothing to stir Don from his bed. On the best of days, with his hearing aids turned up in a quiet room, he could only hear 20% of the conversation. Turned off in the night, the screaming fire alarms were quite literally falling on deaf ears.
“I almost lost my life because when my hearing aid came out, I heard nothing. Nothing!” he told me. “The fireman got me out just before the window blew in and would have killed me.”
|Sunnybrook’s cochlear implant program has marked
a major milestone
Don had been diagnosed with Meniere’s disease (an inner ear disorder that impacts balance and hearing) in one ear, and lost the hearing in his other ear after surgery. While he used a hearing aid for many years, eventually, it wasn’t enough.
That’s what brought him to Sunnybrook’s Cochlear Implant Program, a surgery he had done in 2010. And a surgery, he told me, that gave him his life back. As soon as his device was activated one month after the implant was put in, he could hear again. “I couldn’t stop it, the tears were coming down, I couldn’t stop it,” he says. “You can rejoin life. It blows me away.”
Sunnybrook has the largest adult Cochlear Implant Program in Ontario, and just last week, the team, led by Dr. Vincent Lin, celebrated a huge accomplishment: implanting their 1000th patient. The milestone patient is Paul Wheeler, who has been through a lot with his own hearing loss; early retirement and social stigma to name a few. The nature of cochlear implants is that time is typically needed for patients to reach their full potential with the device. I’ll be following Paul over the next few months and will produce a video on his progress. Watch for that later this year.
Now two years removed from his surgery, Don still comes in for testing and adjustments to the device. The day I met him, Don was in for an appointment with an audiologist. Sitting in a soundproof booth, he was asked to repeat complex sentences recited in a restaurant-like setting. He can now hear about 90% of speech in a noisy room. “I’m back to the opera, and I go to the ballet!” he told me.
Sunnybrook’s team is now involved in research to improve the next generation of cochlear implants. Much like personal computers, they have become much smaller and more sophisticated. (It’s hard to believe there was a time patients had to wear backpacks to power the devices!) And there is a push to improve the number of frequencies the devices can pick up. Only a handful are needed to decipher normal speech, but music is much more complex. Conquering that next frontier would be not only be sweet for Sunybrook’s team, but also their next 1000 patients. Stay tuned!