One Child's Journey to Better Hearing

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By News Team on November 11, 2019

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.

Cochlear implants require lifelong adjustments and follow-up care. Having that care available close to home means patients like Thomas can spend more time on the playground and less time in waiting rooms.

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. Dr. Robbins noted that they can make a life-changing difference for adults as well. 

"We are able to take people who have some moderate types of hearing loss, and through a small surgery behind the ear, implant an electrode that goes into the cochlea,” he said. “After that heals, we can combine that with a small mini-computer that looks like a hearing aid, which processes sound and delivers it to the cochlea, which for many hasn’t worked well for several years.”