HH/Beck: Good Morning Ms. Fries.
Fries: Hi Dr. Beck.
HH/Beck: Thanks for speaking with me today about your middle ear implant.
Fries: I am happy to do that.
HH/Beck: Can you start by telling me a little about your personal hearing history and what type of work you do?
Fries: I am 71 years old, and I retired as Program Manager of the Chemical Dependency Treatment Program at Park Medical Center in Columbus, OH, 4 years ago. I worked very closely with patients and families in a variety of settings from one-on-one to larger groups. It was critically important that I hear and understand what was being said by those patients and their family members. I found myself missing a word occasionally. In an effort to hear better, I would set the room up, be it large or small, so that it was advantageous for me during management and staff meetings, and other presentations, but that didnt always work. If I couldnt understand a response, I would blame the ventilation system in the large lecture room, and I can recall saying, The ventilation system is so noisy in here, that Ill need you to speak up a little so I can hear you better. If that didnt work, Id find myself walking around the room and placing myself closer to the person speaking so that I could hear them better.
HH/Beck: Well, those are actually pretty good aural rehabilitation management strategies! But then again, management in the absence of diagnosis is a little like putting the cart before the horse! When did you first notice your hearing loss?
Fries: Ive had a hearing loss for so long that I honestly cannot tell you the year it started, although it was probably some 10-12 years or more. I was living in the world of denial! I must have known I wasnt hearing everything, but I avoided that on a conscious level. I think it happened so gradually it was easy to ignore. Eventually I knew I couldnt hear well, but I really didnt want to admit that. My hearing wasnt up to par . . . but I decided it was someone elses problem . . . they didnt speak loud enough, or they didnt look at me while speaking, or they talked behind the newspaper, or while walking out of the room, or there were too many people speaking at once . . . or as I said earlier . . . just too much noise. When I retired, I noticed that life was different. I remarried 7 years ago to a very wonderful kind, gentle, caring man . . . who is very soft-spoken, so now there was a new problem to address. We both became frustrated with my hearing loss. I found myself withdrawing from some social situations, because I knew I would not do well in those circumstances.
HH/Beck: Did you try hearing aids?
Fries: Yes, I got a hearing aid in 1999 for my right ear. My left ear has a long history of ear infections, etc., and I have had multiple surgeries on the left ear. So I really dont hear on the left side. Basically, I am dependent on the right ear, and as that got progressively worse, thats the one I tried the hearing aid on. My ear doctor in Sarasota was the one who encouraged me to get a hearing aid, and so I did. I had an excellent hearing aid, it was digital and had some noise reduction features too. It was a tiny CIC (Completely-In-The-Canal) and it worked fine and it certainly helped. In fact, I would have to say the hearing aid was actually remarkable in many respects. But after a little bit of time I started to run into problems with it. When it was originally fit, I was thoroughly instructed on how to manage, insert and remove it, change the batteries and how to take care of it. Unfortunately, after the first week, the case broke! I went to the audiologist and she took a new impression, then the unit went back to the factory and it never fit quite right after that. She tried everything. She tweaked it, re-programmed it, re-adjusted it, and it did get a little better, but I still was not doing well in restaurants, forget going to the theatre, and lots of griping about the TV volume. I just got very frustrated with the whole ordeal.
AO/Beck: Sounds like things were going pretty bad at that time. How long was the period of time between the hearing aid fitting and the decision to have the middle ear implant?
Fries: It was about a year and a half. In January 2001 I went in to see my ear doctor who is a neurotologist. The audiogram showed that there was significant additional hearing loss in my right ear. I was terribly discouraged at that news. I mentioned my frustration with my hearing and hearing aids, my difficulty communicating with my husband and my friends, and the doctor told me about a brand new hearing device that had been FDA approved 8/31/2000. He went on to describe a middle ear implant called the Vibrant Soundbridge by Symphonix. He was convinced this would likely solve most of my problems, and he wanted me to really consider having it. As you can imagine, I was willing to try anything at that point . . . but I really didnt want any more surgery! The doctor was sympathetic to that. He pointed out that it was essentially the same surgery that Id had before (he was referring to my two previous mastoid surgeries on my left ear). He also gave me some pamphlets on the device and he gave me a contact list of other patients who had been through the procedure during the FDA trials. I had never heard of middle ear implants prior to that time and this whole topic was new for me. I didnt even know what to ask. I made a lot of phone calls, I asked lots of questions, and I went to the Symphonix website (www.symphonix.com) where I found even more in-depth information. My husband also read everything I accumulated to that point, and told me go for it. He said my hearing was very important. I made the decision to go ahead because the surgeon was enthusiastic, all of the patients I had spoken with very enthusiastic, my husband was so supportive, and I was quite familiar with mastoid surgeries.
AO/Beck: What were your expectations at that time regarding the Vibrant SoundBridge?
Fries: I was counseled from the beginning that the Soundbridge would not restore my hearing to what it was when I was 20 years old. (As if I could remember that far back!) It would not cure the problem of sensorineural (nerve) hearing loss, but that it would provide better hearing in most situations. The doctor and the audiologist were very careful not to promise anything actually! They said they believed the implant would address many of the problems I was having, but that there were no perfect solutions out there. Another thing that impacted my expectations was that I asked every middle ear implant patient I spoke with, if after all was said and done, would they do it again? Every one of them said Yes. So, I totally understood all of that and I agreed to go ahead. I thought if I got anywhere near the results they did, I would be a happy camper.
AO/Beck: When did you receive your Symphonix implant?
Fries: I was implanted on March 8, 2001 in an outpatient surgical procedure. On May 8, 2001, I was activated . The external audio processor was digitally programmed to my hearing loss, and it attaches magnetically to the implant which is under my scalp. Ive had the device for just over a year.
AO/Beck: Can you tell a big difference in your communication ability with your family?
Fries: Oh yes! The most significant change of course is with my husband. I can hear and speak with him, almost without effort and he is still very soft-spoken. Additionally, the family had noticed the big change too. I can again attend theatre, concerts, movies, lectures, discussion groups, gatherings and hear in restaurants, too. One major change has been my ability to use the phone with more confidence. It is not perfect, I still ask to have some things repeated, but Ive noticed that people with good hearing also dont always catch everything.
AO/Beck: I should point out that you and I are speaking by phone for this interview, and indeed, we are some 1500 miles apart, and you seem to be doing very well on the phone.
Fries: Yes, this has been a really easy discussion for me. Some telephones work better than others, so there is some variation, but, yes, I do well on the phone.
AO/Beck: Ms. Fries, what is the single biggest change since youve received the Vibrant Soundbridge?
Fries: I feel like Ive been handed my life back. As you slowly lose hearing, you dont notice it its a little at a time, and you adjust and make do. But then after I was implanted, my whole life was given back to me, and in retrospect I can see how many things that I really enjoyed, I had given up on or withdrawn from, because of my hearing loss. I am very grateful.
AO/Beck: Ms. Fries, it has been a pleasure to speak with you. Thanks so much for sharing your story and your time with me.
Fries: My pleasure Dr. Beck. Its been fun for me too.
For more information on middle ear implants, CLICK HERE.
HH/Beck: Good Morning Ms. Fries.