For Marine Veteran Jeremy Hernandez, 48, having to constantly ask his wife, children, and colleagues to repeat themselves felt stressful and created tension as it became increasingly clear he was struggling to hear.
As the inability to hear grew worse—a problem that arose from his military time shooting weapons with inadequate ear protection and from closely editing sound in films— it took a greater toll as he began experiencing pseudo-auditory hallucinations, a side effect of tinnitus and hearing loss, resulting in the loss of his profession in communications, a field where hearing is imperative. But Hernandez avoided talking to anyone about it or going to a VA medical center, fearing that they would say he was crazy.
“I resisted going to the VA because I wasn’t sure it would actually help, and the negative publicity about VA scared me,” he said. “No one ever talks to us about how tinnitus and hearing loss affects Veterans. It’s worse at night when we’re tired and things around us are dark and quiet, and we’re so close to falling asleep; the experience can be absolutely terrifying.”
Then when his community provider learned he was a Veteran and suggested he check out the VA audiology clinic, citing it as one of the best, he got past his fear, applied for VA health care, and made an appointment. “I was shocked. I received top of the line care and hearing aids with the latest technology that works with my phone, something I couldn’t afford on my own,” he said. “Plus, Dr. Delong calibrated my hearing aids to my individual hearing level and needs.”
Although the quality and technology shocked Hernandez who had been expecting the worse, the Audiology and Speech Pathology Clinic at the VA Maryland Health Care System assesses the needs of Veterans struggling with an array of hearing impairment and provides each with individual care. “Hearing impairment is different in every Veteran and may require different treatments based on the level of hearing loss,” said Dr. Julia Delong, staff audiologist. “We personalize every Veteran’s care to their level of hearing loss and unique needs.”
This is especially true for Air Force and Army Veteran Nathaniel Thomas, 80, an avid swimmer, who has received his care at the VA Maryland Health Care System since his retirement from the Army. Thomas had been serving in the Army when an ear infection caused by bacteria in the pool began interfering with his hearing. At first, he and his doctors thought it would clear up, but it didn’t. “I now tell anyone I see swimming at a pool to stuff their ears with a cotton ball with petroleum jelly on it to prevent water getting into the ear,” said Thomas, who lost hearing first in his right ear and then later in his left. “When the testing revealed I was totally deaf, that’s when I broke down and cried because I knew I’d never hear the sounds of the world again—like birds chirping,” he said.
His VA doctors, however, had a different plan. They offered Thomas the cochlear implant surgery. “I took a weekend to think about if I wanted this surgery, and it came down to do I want to live my life the way it was without hearing anything or did I want to take a chance on the surgery?”
The surgery sounded scary, requiring an internal implant that would travel up the nerve into his brain to electronically stimulate the nerves in the inner ear. Thomas decided to take the chance with the surgery and found that the cochlear implant changed his life.
“It was the best decision I made,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I had to practice hearing and speaking after getting the implant.”
To do that, he asked family members to read to him so that he could repeat back to them what he was hearing. “Without this kind of practice, I sounded like a computer when I spoke,” said Thomas, who now volunteers in the Audiology clinic to help other Veterans who are undergoing treatment for hearing loss. “I am so grateful to be able to hear, so volunteering is what I can do to give back,” he said.
The cochlear implant is one of the specialty services provided by the Audiology and Speech Pathology clinic for Veterans with profound hearing loss and who agree to participate in the treatment and rehabilitation protocols.
Hearing impairment in adults can range from mild to profound and is a common problem. Caused by loud noises, aging, disease, and genetic variations, hearing loss makes it challenging to have conversations with family and friends. People with hearing loss may have difficulty understanding co-workers and supervisors and may not be able to understand warnings or hear doorbells and alarms. It also includes a condition called tinnitus, which is hearing ringing, buzzing, roaring, clicking, hissing, humming or other noises in one or both ears that is not caused by external sounds. It affects about 15-20 percent of people, is especially common in older adults, but also is occurring in younger Veterans. Although tinnitus is a symptom of hearing loss, it does not actually impact hearing ability. It can be present all the time or come and go. Tinnitus can happen in people who do not experience hearing loss, and while it may sometimes be caused by an underlying condition such an ear injury, it is time to see a doctor if the tinnitus begins to disrupt daily living.
“Both hearing loss and tinnitus can negatively impact communication, which can have a global effect on someone’s life,” said Dr. John Koslowski, chief of Audiology and Speech Pathology at the VA Maryland Health Care System. “They can end up losing friends and jobs because they simply cannot hear.”
To assess hearing impairment, Koslowski and the Audiology team use diagnostic tests to determine if hearing loss is present and then will discuss the results with patients and their families and the best treatment options available, including hearing aids, personal amplifiers, assistive technologies, and cochlear implants.
“Today everyone has things in their ears—ear buds and headphones—so the stigma of wearing hearing aids has diminished,” said Koslowski. “We have state of the art hearing aids that are connected to people’s smart phones. The advanced technology has been a game changer.”
Just ask Hernandez and Thomas. They can now clearly hear thanks to the care they have received from Audiology and Speech Pathology at the VA Maryland Health Care System.
To schedule an appointment at one of six Audiology Clinics throughout the VA Maryland Health Care System, Veterans should call the Appointment Center at 410-605-7333. No referral is required.