8/19/19

Cochlear implants ease relationship strains hearing loss can cause

Less than a month after cochlear implants changed his life, Dave Kondritz was a wholehearted fan.

“Anyone who has a severe hearing loss has to look into this,” the Decatur man said. “You have to look into whether you’re a candidate” for the device.

Kondritz, 72, started using hearing aids about 25 years ago. The prolonged decline in his hearing, which he attributes to years of working with noisy power tools as an industrial arts teacher, affected his entire family.

“It was difficult on me, because I’d be around him the most,” said wife Alice Kondritz, 71. “It was difficult to carry on a conversation. It was just a strain. It got to the point where I had to write things out on a white board.”

His primary physician suggested last fall Dave might be a good candidate for a cochlear implant. That led him to Carle, which has specialized in cochlear implants since the device’s development and introduction in the mid-1980s.

“We got to Carle on January 2, and April 2 he got the implant,” Alice said. “May 2 they were activated. It’s amazing what he can hear now.”

A hearing aid (essentially a tiny amplifier) makes sounds louder. That’s all many people with hearing loss ever need. But for those with severe hearing loss, hearing aids can’t make speech clear.  A cochlear implant bypasses damaged parts of the ear to transmit electrical impulses directly to the auditory nerve – and from there to the brain, which interprets the signals as sound.

“A cochlear implant in effect provides replacement stimulation for damaged nerve fibers,” said Jennifer Black, director of Carle’s adult cochlear implant program. “The device itself sits inside the inner ear and provides a very specific, targeted stimulation to the inner ear that a hearing aid can’t do.”

Before proceeding with the implant – an outpatient procedure that usually takes a couple hours – Black’s team evaluates patients to ensure they’re good candidates.   

“There are very specific guidelines for the implant,” she said. “First, an evaluation of the hearing to determine it’s a severe, sensory-neural hearing loss. Second, very detailed testing with hearing aids.”

Health plans and the federal Food and Drug Administration require the second step to confirm hearing aids no longer provide adequate benefit for the patient.

“You have to exhaust all other possibilities before recommending surgery, because once a person has surgery for the cochlear implant there’s no going back,” Black said.

Dave’s wife is just fine with that.

“He was basically deaf, so we figured we didn’t have anything to lose,” Alice said. “But yes, it’s a big step because your natural hearing goes away with the surgery.”

Adjusting after surgery takes some time and several visits so the device works optimally for each person.

“What a person hears on the first day is not what they hear in a week or two,” Black said. “Very quickly the brain adapts to this new form of stimulation. And the device is designed to last a lifetime.  

“We’ve had some patients who have had their device for over 30 years.”

Quality of life improved immediately the Kondritzes.

“We can carry on a conversation now, which is just amazing,” Alice said. “We go to our grandchildren’s school functions, and he can hear what’s going on and talk to family. It’s just wonderful.”

Dave added, “I’ve been going to softball games now. I can understand the PA system. Before I couldn’t understand anything. I was totally at a loss.”

Cochlear implant recipients, clearly, gain or regain much more than hearing.

“Hearing loss can negatively affect relationships, so being able to communicate easily really can’t be overestimated,” Black said.

For more information about cochelar implants and other hearing services, talk with your primary care provider or call (217) 902-3277. This spring, Carle Audiology, Hearing Services and Ear, Nose and Throat staff moved to the Carle Outpatient Services at The Fields at 3105 Fields South Drive in Champaign.