Beck: Hi, Larry. Thanks for speaking with me today.
Burns: Good Morning, Doug. Thanks for the opportunity.
Beck: Larry, I know you have a doctorate and I was hoping youd tell us a little about that, please?
Burns: I received my doctorate in civil engineering from the University of California at Berkeley in 1978. My focus was transportation systems research and, in particular -- the economics, public policy, and engineering of those systems, including roads, planes, trains, and automobiles. Quite a lot of math is involved in studying transportation flow, and it was very exciting to develop understanding of how the systems work.
Beck: When did you start at General Motors?
Burns: I started with GM the day I turned 18, so its been 35 years as of June 2004.
Beck: Larry, Id like to mention that you and I are conducting this interview over the phone, no visual communication at all, and, in fact, were sitting some 1,200 or more miles away from each other.
Burns: Right. Im using the telephone and Im listening to you through my cochlear implant.
Beck: Larry, when did you receive your cochlear implant, and can you tell us how that came about?
Burns: I was about 20 years old, in college at the General Motors Institute, which is now called Kettering University. One day, I was taking a shower when the hearing in my right ear just went out. I recall thinking I probably had water in my ear but it didnt clear up. I saw an ear doctor and he decided I had experienced a sudden sensorineural hearing loss. They tested me for a number of things and nothing turned up, so the diagnosis was based essentially on the history, not on a particular test result.
Beck: Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL) is essentially diagnosed based on the physical presentation, the audiometric test results, and the history. As you mentioned, its very important to rule out other issues and etiologies before arriving at the diagnosis. It mustve been difficult for you to be a young man, starting your professional career, and having hearing only in the left ear?
Burns: Yes, it was a while before I really adjusted to hearing with only one ear and I never got used to not being able to tell where sound was coming from. That was a bit of an issue for me. As you know, Doug, with only one ear functioning, localization is very difficult. But I decided that those were the cards I was dealt and I went on with my life. When I turned 40, I suddenly lost the hearing in my left ear. That was terrifically scary and I went to the hospital immediately and they put me on steroids. The hearing returned within a week and, again, the doctors really didnt know what happened or why. About two years later, the hearing in my ear failed again, and that time steroids didnt help. So after about two months, we knew the hearing wasnt coming back.
Beck: And thats when you received your implant?
Burns: About nine months after losing the hearing in my left ear, I received a cochlear implant. Its been 12 years now since I was implanted, so Ive experienced the remarkable improvements in the technology. The first processor I had was worn on the belt and had several wires and attachments. I received the newer Esprit processor about two years ago. It sits behind the ear (BTE) much like a hearing aid. I really like the BTE style so much better!
Beck: Thats an important issue. I know that when Cochlear makes new processors available, they have always maintained compatibility with their previously implanted systems.so even the older cochlear implant systems can be retro-fit with external hardware to keep them up to speed.
Burns: Thats exactly right and Im very grateful for the upgrades! I like to tell people that General Motors has been a fantastic employer for me. When I lost my hearing, I was obviously stressed and anxious about whether I would be able to continue in my job and my career. My boss and General Motors took that problem away. Since it was clearly hard for me to participate in meetings, a stenographer traveled with me to make sure everything was recorded properly. My boss went out of his way to provide everything possible to enable me to continue in my professional capacity. I am very grateful for the support I received from GM. It was tremendous. In fact, I was promoted to my present position after I lost my hearing and received my cochlear implant. I consider it a bit of serendipity that someone like me who has benefited so personally from technology has the opportunity to champion its development.
Beck: Its fairly rare to hear people praising large corporations, and it is delightful to hear your story. I hope it will inspire other corporations and employers to better support their employees through these issues. What was the sound quality like when you first listened through the cochlear implant?
Burns: As many others have said, initially everyone sounds like Donald Duck. But, fairly quickly, sounds start to make sense and you relearn how to hear, so pretty soon, things sounded normal. I have to say that even after 12 years with my cochlear implant, I feel like Im still progressing and learning to use new sounds all the time. My most recent upgrade was last summer (2004) and even though I always did well with voices and conversations -- with the new upgrade, Ive been able to appreciate music again. In fact, I use XM radio and love to listen to the songs from the 1960s. Its really a fabulous thing to hear those songs again.
Beck: So, just to be clear for the readers. You still have the original electrode, the portion that was implanted 12 years ago, and youve not had additional surgeries, but you have had a few upgrades to the external components?
Burns: Yes, thats exactly right. The durability of the implant has been astonishing.
Beck: Are you involved in athletics or sports?
Burns: I run three or four miles every morning and I love to snow ski in the winter. I dont wear the external device when Im running because I dont want perspiration to cause a problem. The internal electrode gets quite a bit of physical banging around and Ive had no problems at all.
I would also like to mention that the Cochlear Corporation provides terrific and very responsive customer service and I want to take this opportunity to thank them.
Beck: Larry, youre a delight to speak with. You are one of the most positive and energetic people Ive spoken with and, again, thanks so much for sharing your story and your experiences.
Burns: Its totally a pleasure, Doug. The Cochlear Corporation, my medical team at the University of Michigan, GM, and my family and friends have gotten me through this. Im very appreciative for all theyve done to allow me to continue in my profession and lead a normal life. You know, most people never think about becoming deaf. I know I never thought about it before it happened to me. Going through it has been a unique and educational experience I learned a lot about myself and the importance of becoming enabled. I am so appreciative for all the knowledge, technology, and assistance provided to me.
Beck: Thanks for your time and energy, Larry. It really has been a pleasure speaking with you.
Burns: Thank you, too, Doug.
Beck: Hi, Larry. Thanks for speaking with me today.