Some 22 profoundly deaf individuals who have received cochlear implants, more commonly known as artificial inner ears, gathered Friday in Salt Lake City to "celebrate the difference between being a patient - and a person."
Though not as well publicized as the University of Utah's artificial heart, the artificial ear offers more immediate benefit to thousands of Americans whose lives have been circumscribed by hearing loss.It has already benefited, to one degree or another, more than 150 people worldwide.
Many of them Friday were at the University Research Hotel for an update on the device that restored their hearing. One was Scott Shepherd, an Ogden man who had becomeprofoundly deaf seven years before he became the first patient to receive the ear in 1984 after it was officially approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
He and others, including Payson resident Dellavene Stevens, who received an implantless than a year ago, told of experiences that came with "learning" to hear again. Music to their ears were the sounds of children talking, birds chirping and even toilets flushing.
Since Shepherd's successful surgery, 33 people have undergone surgery at the U. Hospital to receive Utah-designed cochlear implants, marketed under the name INERAID. Each attending the conference Friday was anxious for an update on the device that brought sound to their silent lives again.
"Over the years, many patients have approached me following surgery with questions about their implants - they're curious about everything from the surgical technique itself to the technology behind the sound processing units they are using," said Dr. James L. Parkin, chairman of the Division of Otolaryngology and chief surgeon on the cochlear implant project.
"This workshop has been a perfect forum for us to answer those questions, as well as to introduce patients to some home rehabilitation techniques we've developed," he said.
Parkin said the most important purpose of the gathering is to bring all implant users together "so that they can compare notes and share techniques to help each other."
Every patient, he said, is disappointed immediately after surgery at what they hear. But as evident by the testimony Friday, their hearing improves.
"My personal perception of voices are just a tiny bit off from what I remember hearing, but environmental sounds are 100 percent exactly like I remember them," said Bobby Hise, a preacher from Borger, Tex. "Your dog and my dog bark the same."
The INERAID artificial ear was developed by researchers at the U. of U., and is manufactured by Symbion Inc. Parkin explained how the device works.
The artificial ear, he said, consists of a permanently implanted set of six tiny electrodes that are placed in the cochlea, a snail-shaped channel in the inner ear; wires that go to a pedestal or button attached to the skull behind the ear; and a radio-sized pack that contains a microphone and miniaturized electronic equipment.
The sound processor plugs into the pedestal and can be removed for activities that don't require hearing.
Sounds entering the microphone travel by wire into the cochlea, where they set up vibrations that go, in turn, to the auditory nerve and into the brain for interpretation.
Implantation of the Ineraid ear, which used to take four hours, now is done by Parkin in 2 1/2 to 3 hours. The patient is hospitalized just overnight. About 75 percent of insurance companies, including Medicare, now pay for the $18,000 to $20,000 surgery and equipment.
The device is now being used only for people who have once had hearing and then lost it. They are the only ones who could compare the sounds being received, Parkin said.
Ultimately, it may hold promise for individuals born deaf.
Meanwhile it has given new life to many others.
"I am here today because I am celebrating the difference between being a patient and a person," Hise said. "Hearing, auditory stimulation and all the sounds around me have made me a person again.
"All of us are celebrating the fact that we feel like people - not patients."