Monday, January 19, 2009

My Bad Just Wasn't Good Enough

Most people who know me are aware of how I'm essentially deaf in one ear and can't hear a damn thing out of the other (a line they've all heard from me too many times, I'm sure). This can be traced back to the fact that I never realized that volume knobs could also turn down, be they connected to stereo headphones or guitar amps, until some point in my late 20's. By then, the damage was done and chronic tinnitus was my personal affliction. By my mid-40's, I came into a windfall sufficient to finance the acquisition of a pair of high-end digital hearing aids ($5k for the pair!) that truly transformed my life - everyone around me stopped mumbling all the time and stuff that was supposed to go "click" no longer went "thud".

These hearing aids have been repaired and replaced many times since I got them, and though I milk them for all they are worth it's only a matter of time before further repair/replacement is no longer an option, and I'll be forced to cough up more big bucks to continue enjoying the auditory lifestyle to which I've become accustomed.

So I'm listening to the radio a couple of weeks ago and I hear about an ongoing clinical trial for the purpose of obtaining FDA approval for the sale of a fully-implantable hearing aid instrument (not to be confused with a cochlear implant). Even though I'm not altogether thrilled with the prospect of having something surgically implanted in my skull, the fact that everything but personal travel to/from the clinic is paid for intrigues me. It turns out that the price tag on this instrument is $12.5k apiece, plus $5k in surgical costs. My cost would be a couple of tanks of gas. So I call the number.

They were sufficiently interested in me to bring me into the participating ENT practice in Houston for a full hearing test and interview. My knowledge of the various features and subsystems of hearing aids (mostly learned from using signal processing gear in my music, same kind of stuff) was a big plus, and I looked like a shoo-in assuming that my hearing loss was within the desired profile - which it was. But...

It seems that I have a negative-pressure condition within my middle ears, which results in a 2db drop between what happens at my eardrum and what I actually sense in my inner ear. This is a disqualifying condition according to the criteria set by the FDA for this trial. Ironically, the instrument in question is actually designed to address that kind of hearing flaw, which I would think makes me an even better candidate. But no.

So, now I needn't be concerned with having a hole drilled through the side of my skull into the middle ear cavity, and a laser-drilled hole created in my stapes bone therein. Nor do I have to ponder the tricky placement of the subcutaneous microphone that might keep me from using headphones anymore, or the ramifications of having a shallow chamber routed out to allow the instrument package to be flush-mounted in my skull surface. If I ever need an MRI, it will still be an option available to me. And I won't have to walk around for an hour a day with charging unit stuck to the side of my head with a magnet. Not to mention surgical replacement of the internal battery 5-10 years down the road, on my nickel.

Maybe getting kicked off the island wasn't such a bad thing after all.

What do you think? If you were in my situation, would you do it?

Update: I called the audiologist back and told her that I was just getting over a head cold, and could that have skewed the test results regarding my middle ear pressure? She said that it could indeed, and agreed to retest me in a few weeks after all vestiges of the cold are gone. I still might get the opportunity to have a bionic ear after all.

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