Sunday, March 14, 2010

Cochlear Implant Technology in Alaska

When I moved to Alaska I didn't really think about the availability of medical resources. One friend I know, though, has had to fly to Seattle to see an arthritis specialist until last year when one finally came to Anchorage. Cancer treatment means a trip to Anchorage as well, and going to doctor appointments is one of the common reasons people from all over the state visit Anchorage.

My audiologist had suggested that I might be a cochlear implant candidate a few years ago, but I pooh-poohed her suggestion, not realizing what a cochlear implant really was. When I was helping at a ski race a few months ago a stranger came up to me, pulled off what looked a hearing aid and said, "This is my cochlear implant and you need to get one!" I was taken aback but intrigued. Come to find out it was the mother of the Homer Women's Nordic Ski Team coach which I belong to. I had mentioned my hearing impairment to my coach and she had pointed me out to her mom, so she knew who I was. A day standing at the finish line of the race chatting opened my eyes to a whole different world.

I had pretty much not even considered getting a cochlear implant since moving to Alaska since I figured I would have to fly to Seattle for all pre- and post-testing. As I found out, there are audiologists in Anchorage who do all the pre-testing, the 2-3 hour surgery happens in Seattle, and then all the post-op support and rehab happen in Anchorage. Though Anchorage is a 4-5 hour drive, that is short compared to flying to Seattle. I got in touch with the audiologist, found out I am a candidate, and am now waiting for insurance approval. A visit to an ear, nose & throat specialist will be next on the list, and then a pre-op physical. A non-profit in California will fly my husband and I down to Seattle at no charge for the surgery. We'll be there 2 or 3 days, fly back to Anchorage, the implant will be 'turned on' and then the serious work begins.

When an implant is turned on, if a person can hear any sounds or understand any words at all they are doing incredible. Most people, though, get their implant turned on and might not even be able to hear the microwave ding. The sounds are now electrical impulses rather than acoustical, so the brain has to re-learn how to hear sounds. On the other hand, everyone is different. Sonja, who got her implant 2 years ago, was able to hear almost perfectly when she was 'turned on.' That is the exception. Since there are no auditory rehab specialists in Homer, my rehab will be done with computer programs. There could be up to 6 trips up to Anchorage needed for follow-ups, tweaking the programs in the implant to sound more like I want them to sound.

Northern Hearing Services, where I went, has helped over 200 people in Alaska get cochlear implants, many of them infants or children. They work closely with the cochlear implant companies to provide good follow-up service. When a person has learned to hear with an implant, their hearing often becomes equivalent to a normal person's hearing. Many people, having gotten one implant, often want their other ear done as well. They figure it couldn't be much better than getting the first one, but many are stunned with the incredible quality of sound of bilateral cochlear implants, and the second is as amazing as the first.

The lesson I learned here is not to assume that just because I'm in Alaska doesn't mean services aren't offered. All it takes is the right doctor or specialist to want to live in Alaska and open an office to make a service available to all Alaskans.

1 comment:

Neal said...

That is interesting. I really love the summer at least. We'll be making our 4th trip to AK this year. It will be a short stay however as we're taking a southbound cruise out of Seward. We'll be going down to Kenai and Homer for a couple days before we leave on our cruise. Good luck with the implant.