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Air Force Hospital Brings Cochlear Implants to Military Families

First Lt. Jennifer Tay,
First Lt. Nicole Cioni
Air Force Cochlear Implant Program
Wilford Hall Medical Center
San Antonio, Texas.

Over the past year, surgeons and audiologists at Wilford Hall Medical Center, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, have restored hearing to 17 people using cochlear implants. The recipients have included an active duty master sergeant, dependent children and retired military members.

The revitalized cochlear implant program recently delighted a retiree, who wrote that he couldn't sleep at all the first night after his hearing was "activated." A prelingually-deafened 20-year-old patient heard his mother's voice for the first time and the 13 month-old daughter of an Army sergeant cried along with her parents as the doors to her hearing world opened. Over 24 additional patients are scheduled for the life-changing surgery over the next eight months.

The Wilford Hall Cochlear Implant team is the only one of its' kind in the US Air Force. The team provides cochlear implant surgery, audiology and speech services and medical support for implant candidates and their families.

Wilford Hall Medical Center has been involved with cochlear implants since the early 1980's. In Fall 2001, under the direction of Col. Ben Sierra and Maj. (Dr.) Drew Horlbeck, the program was completely re-structured and a cochlear implant board was established. The board process ensures that cochlear implantation is offered to candidates with realistic expectations and to those with a good prognosis.

The board is comprised of experts in audiology, speech pathology, developmental pediatrics, social work, psychology and an education specialist. The cochlear implant board evaluates all candidates to determine hearing status, speech ability, social and psychological concerns and surgical compatibility. The WHMC Cochlear Implant program follows all FDA guidelines for cochlear implantation, and is available to all branches of the Armed Forces, as well as retirees .

In December 2001, an active duty master sergeant with sudden hearing loss was evaluated for a cochlear implant. Master Sgt. John T. Hawk received his cochlear implant and gradually returned to his unit full time. Thanks to the cochlear implant, Sergeant Hawk continues to perform his normal duties while awaiting the decision of the medical evaluation board. In the past, when an active duty airman was diagnosed with profound hearing loss, the member would immediately be medically retired. Based on his excellent performance with the cochlear implant and his ability to communicate, it is anticipated the Air Force will retain one of its valuable assets - an active duty Master Sergeant with over 18 years of experience, training, and expertise.

Currently, cochlear implant evaluation and processor mapping services are provided by a team of specialized active duty Air Force audiologists, only at Wilford Hall Medical Center. Implantation and services are not available at smaller Air Force medical facilities as current resources do not allow for such specialized care. However, cochlear implant programs have recently been started at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and at Portsmouth Naval Hospital. These services are available to military retirees, active duty military members and their dependants.

For more information regarding the Wilford Hall Medical Center Cochlear Implant Program, please contact the WHMC Cochlear Implant Program at (210) 292-5677.

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