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Arlene Alpert's story: High-tech hearing aids bring sounds to life


Bulky, uncomfortable, unsightly. That’s what Arlene Alpert recalled about the hearing aids her mother and husband wore years ago. She was pleasantly surprised but skeptical when Daniel Barchie, hearing instrument specialist at Tufts Medical Center’s Hearing Loss and Amplification Program, placed a tiny device in the palm of her hand. Arlene couldn’t believe this high-tech gadget would make a difference in her hearing loss.

At 81, Arlene lives a full and independent life. She has four grown children and several “grand dogs” she’s devoted to. Meticulous and fashionable, Arlene takes pride in her appearance with regular visits to the hairstylist. And, each week she gathers with a group of friends to play mahjong, an ancient Chinese game played with tiles.

Struggling to hear

But over the last several years, Arlene noticed her hearing ability slipping away. Her children also recognized their mom’s struggles. “My son lives with me and would come home after work and say, “Mom, the TV is blaring! I had no idea it was so loud,” she said. When her children called from their cell phones, conversation was often one-sided and frustrating. Even her mahjong game suffered as Arlene missed out on verbal cues and discussion among fellow players. “I was constantly asking people to repeat themselves. It was embarrassing.”

Hearing loss is one of the most common conditions affecting older and elderly adults. Approximately one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 has some degree of deafness, as do nearly half of those older than 75. Hearing loss may be hereditary or caused by exposure to loud noise or be the result of medical issues, medications or aging.

For older adults, hearing impairment is often relegated to the back burner as they deal with more pressing health concerns. Arlene, who suffers from arthritis, explains, “As I got older, my hearing problem was the lesser of medical evils so to speak. I guess I neglected it.”

Tufts MC hearing experts step in

It wasn’t until Arlene experienced pain in one ear that her hearing issue took priority. Arlene was referred to Otolaryngologist Jonathon Sillman, MD, FACS, who diagnosed and treated an ear infection. He suggested Arlene have a hearing test at Tufts MC, who conducted a comprehensive hearing evaluation.

Doctors determined that Arlene had bilateral mild to profound sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) which occurs when the inner ear (cochlea) or the nerve pathways from the cochlea to the brain are damaged.  Doctors then recommended that Arlene be fitted with hearing aids.

“I was apprehensive,” admitted Arlene. “My kids encouraged me to at least try wearing them. They felt I was missing out on so much.” A patient at Tufts MC for nearly 50 years, Arlene was familiar with the hospital and appreciated the ease of valet parking. She also found Daniel Barchie, Tufts MC’s hearing instrument specialist and a hearing aid wearer himself, knowledgeable and easy to talk to.

As they chatted, Daniel compiled a case history of Arlene, discovering more about her home life and daily activities. He watched as she handled a demo hearing aid and talked with her about her concerns. “Arlene was doubtful that hearing aids were right for her. She worried about changing the battery and how the hearing aids would look,” Daniel said.

Revolutionary, rechargeable hearing aid

Daniel suggested Arlene try a rechargeable receiver-in-canal (RIC) hearing aid, an affordable and high-performing option. The body of the hearing aid is the size of a kidney bean. It houses the microphone and amplifier and fits comfortably behind the ear. A thin, transparent electrical wire connects the body over the outer ear and into the ear canal where an earbud holding the speaker transmits sound. Because the earbud doesn’t seal the canal, air and sound flows naturally.

Digital technology allows the RIC to process millions of commands per second, transforming sound waves into binary code that is released to the wearer. The signal processing chip suppresses feedback and customizes sounds to different listening environments. RIC hearing aids offer cosmetic appeal as they are virtually unnoticeable. Unlike hearing aids of old, there are no hard-to-use buttons or dials. According to Daniel, “They’re virtually goof proof.”

Arlene decided to give the hearing aids a try. “Dan fitted me and told me I had 60 days to decide whether I wanted to keep them. The hearing aids are very small — in the beginning I had to use both hands to put them in my ears. Now I pop them in and out easily. Before I go to bed, I put them in a box that charges them over night,” she said.

She has been back to see Daniel several times for adjustments. Each time, Barchie connects the hearing aids to his computer. “I can see what percentage of time is spent in quiet, speech and noise. This helps me program software to meet needs,” said Daniel who also cleans the hearing aids and replaces parts.

Back in the game

Daniel explains that initial hearing aid use can be startling. “People who have been living in a quiet world are sensitive to the barrage of sounds. I tell patients they’ll go through an auditory rehabilitation as they adjust. I had one patient say he’d forgotten that raindrops make noise and another excited to hear peep toads croaking in his pond,” he said.

Improvement in hearing can bring an enhanced outlook and quality of life while prolonging independence. For Arlene, it has meant better interaction with her family. She’s noticed that making appointments by phone, a task that used to frustrate her, is now easier. Her concern about hearing aids being unattractive has proved unfounded – the mahjong ladies never noticed them. And, best of all, her game has definitely improved.

To learn more about the Hearing Loss and Amplification Program, call 617-636-8724.