When he was born, Thomas Smith failed multiple hearing tests and was diagnosed with hearing loss. At a year old, he received cochlear implants, an electronic device that replaces the function of the damaged inner ear.
Unlike hearing aids, which make sounds louder, cochlear implants do the work of damaged parts of the inner ear (cochlea) to provide sound signals to the brain.
The implants have allowed Thomas to make great progress as he has developed into a rambunctious and funny 5-year-old boy, but the surgery and follow-up care for cochlear implants is not always readily available in every community.
Thomas and his parents, who live in Huddleston, Va., had to travel to Charlottesville for the surgery and for regular follow-up care, which is critical to the successful development of hearing skills. But now they can get Thomas's care without traveling thanks to Carilion Clinic's Ear, Nose & Throat team.
“It is great to be able to be close to home and stay in the area versus having to travel two hours to get the same service," explained Candice Smith, Thomas' mother.
The ENT team includes Kristi Miller, a pediatric-certified audiologist, who works closely with patients following their surgeries to make sure the implants are correctly dialed in for each patient.
"They go through the surgery and then about a month later they come back and we activate the implants,” Kristi explained. “After the surgery is really when my involvement comes into play. I will follow these patients for years."
But devices like cochlear implants aren’t just for children. They can make a life-changing difference for adults as well.
People who have lived for years with some types of moderate types of hearing loss can benefit from the procedure. It requires only a small incision behind the ear, where an electrode is implanted to connect with the cochlea. Then a small mini-computer that looks like a hearing aid can process sound and deliver it directly to the cochlea, profoundly changing the way the patient experiences the vast array of sounds around them.