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Into Thin Air: One Patient's Story of Hearing Loss

January 12, 2011
When Carol Colgan stepped off the flight from her last business trip before retirement in 2009, she didn’t think twice about the clogged feeling in her right ear. The veteran traveler had experienced her fair share of discomfort from flying. A few days later, when her ear still had not returned to normal, she sought help from her GBMC primary care physician Sarah Whiteford, MD. After a regimen of antibiotics provided no relief, Ms. Colgan was referred to Brian Kaplan, MD, FACS, Chairman of the Department of Otolaryngology.

A hearing test confirmed that the “stopped up” feeling in Ms. Colgan’s right ear was in fact hearing loss. Dr. Kaplan delivered the news that she had suffered 100 percent hearing loss in her right ear and that it was, unfortunately, likely permanent. “I was shocked,” recalls Ms. Colgan. “I didn’t understand how my hearing could just vanish.”

“The cause of Ms. Colgan’s hearing loss is unknown,” says Dr. Kaplan. “One theory is that the change in barometric pressure caused an injury to her inner ear, resulting in sudden hearing loss.”

Although a cause could not be pinpointed, Dr. Kaplan was quick to suggest a solution: the Baha implant. This device is used to treat patients like Ms. Colgan, who experience single-sided deafness, or unilateral sensorineural hearing loss. Baha is a surgically implanted device that allows sound to be conducted through the bone, rather than the middle of the ear.

In May 2010, Dr. Kaplan implanted a small titanium screw into the bone behind Ms. Colgan’s right ear during an outpatient procedure.

“I thought the surgery was going to be painful, but I was pleasantly surprised,” she says. “I didn’t even need to take any of the prescribed pain killers afterwards.”

Three months later, when the titanium screw had merged (osseointegrated) with the bone, Ms. Colgan was fitted for the Baha hearing device. A sound processor hooks onto the screw, which transfers the sound vibrations from the processor to the implant. The implant sends sound vibrations to her functioning ear, where it can be converted into nerve impulses that travel to the brain, allowing Ms. Colgan to hear.

“After the implant, I was finally able to get back to my normal life. I could resume being active."

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