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4:12 pm
Sun July 13, 2014

Hearing Aid Evolution Unveils What The World Sounds Like In '3-D'

Originally published on Mon July 14, 2014 8:41 am

As hearing aid technology has improved, so has health reporter Kathleen Raven's confidence.

When she was 5 years old, she found out she had a hearing problem. Complications during her birth led to damage in her inner ear.

"I couldn't hear water dripping from a faucet. I couldn't hear crickets on a summer night," she tells NPR's Kelly McEvers. "I couldn't hear sirens, couldn't hear fire alarms in our school fire drills, so I did a lot of watching other people."

The diagnosis was moderate to severe loss of high- and low-frequency hearing. When it comes to speech, certain sounds are out of range for her. Sounds like "ch," "sh" and "th" blend together.

Raven says she reads lips "religiously," but when she can't see a person's lips, she can understand maybe every third word — that is, without a hearing aid.

She got her first hearing aids — a large, clunky set — back when she was 5 in 1993.

"They were about 2 inches long and very thick, and they connected to a very large ear mold inside my ear," she says. "They call them flesh-colored, but they're not the color of anyone's flesh." Her young classmates teased her.

But the technology kept changing. Every few years, her parents would shell out $4,000 to $5,000 on each new device. By the time she got to high school, she had her first completely inside-the-ear hearing aid. That changed everything.

"I just became more confident walking into crowds. I didn't try to hide, I didn't arrange my hair to cover my ears. I started being more talkative, going out with my friends more," says Raven. "I didn't realize how much that fear had impacted me until I got completely in-the-ear hearing aids."

She went on to college and started pursuing her dream of reporting.

"I encountered a few raised eyebrows along the way," she says. "Why do you want to make a living of hearing people when that's a challenge for you?"

She pushed past the skeptics and became a reporter. Today she writes about oncology for BioPharm Insight.

As years passed and the technology progressed, Raven thought her hearing had maxed out. But with each upgrade, she discovered more sounds. Two years ago, she received her latest pair, which cost $7,000.

When her audiologist put them in her ears, she heard an unfamiliar noise. "I just happened to smack my lips together, like you're tasting something," she recalls. "It's just such a simple sound, but it was earth-shattering."

Her audiologist put on Beethoven, and she heard new instruments and trills. "It was like seeing the world in 3-D, or hearing the world in 3-D for the first time," Raven says.

These latest hearing aids are basically invisible. Even still, now she tells people about her hearing loss.

"Five years ago, I still was not ever telling people unless it was absolutely necessary. And now I do work it into conversation in the first five minutes or so," she says. If she needs to ask someone to repeat something, she'll just add, "I have a hearing problem."

"That phrase was impossible for me to say for the first 20 years of my life," Raven says. "Now I think it's very important for hearing loss to be accepted for younger people, of course, and also for older people."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers. When Kathleen Raven was 5-years-old she found out she had a hearing problem - complications during her birth left her with moderate to severe high and low frequency hearing loss in both ears.

KATHLEEN RAVEN: I couldn't hear water dripping from the faucet. And I couldn't hear crickets on a summer night. I couldn't hear sirens. I couldn't hear the fire alarms in our fire drills. So I did a lot of watching other people.

MCEVERS: When it comes to speech, certain sounds are out of range.

RAVEN: Those are TH, so thirst. CH, church - as well as SH. And so those sounds co-mingle and when they're at the beginning or end of words it's difficult to hear them. I lip read religiously.

MCEVERS: If she can't see someone and read their lips Kathleen says, she can understand maybe every third word. That is without a hearing aid. Over the decades Kathleen has been able to witness up close how dramatically hearing aids have improved. She got her first bulky set of hearing aids back in 1993 when she was 5.

RAVEN: They were about two inches long and they connected to a very large ear mold inside my ear. They call them flesh colored but they're not the color of anyone's flesh.

MCEVERS: Her classmates gave her a hard time but the technology kept changing.

RAVEN: Hearing aid technology from the early '90s up until the 2000s would leapfrog every 4 years. The hearing aids on the market would be nothing like the ones that I got before.

MCEVERS: Her parents would shell out 4 to $5,000 on each new device. By the time she got to high school, she had her first completely inside-the-ear hearing aid and that changed everything.

RAVEN: All I wanted since I was little was to not have a visible impairment. I just became more confident walking into crowds, I didn't, you know, arrange my hair to cover my ears. I started being more talkative, going out with my friends more. And I didn't realize how much that fear had impacted me until I got completely-in-the-ear hearing aids.

MCEVERS: She went to college and pursued her dream of becoming a reporter.

RAVEN: I encountered a few raised eyebrows along the way. Why do you want to make a living of hearing people when that's a challenge for you?

MCEVERS: But she went for it. Today she writes about oncology for the online news service BioPharm Insight. As time went on and technology progressed, Kathleen thought her ability to hear had maxed out. But with each upgrade in hearing aids she discovered more sounds.

RAVEN: Two years ago my audiologist fitted me with the current pair I have. She put them in my ears and I just happened to smack my lips together like - smacks lips - and I said what's that noise? Such a simple exercise in sound but it was earth shattering. I had never heard before. She put on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and I heard instruments come out of the woodwork.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEETHOVEN'S NINTH SYMPHONY)

RAVEN: It was like seeing the world in 3D or hearing the world in 3D for the first time.

MCEVERS: That latest pair is $3,500 apiece and basically invisible. I asked her if she tells people about it when she meets them?

RAVEN: I love that question because five years ago I was still not ever telling people unless it was just absolutely necessary. And now I do work it into conversation in the first 5 minutes or so. In social settings, somebody may already say something that I need them to repeat it and along with saying, could you please repeat that I medially say I have a hearing problem. That phrase was impossible for me to say for the first 20 years of my life. Now I think it is very important for hearing loss to be accepted for younger people of course and then also for older people.

MCEVERS: That's Kathleen Raven, a reporter for BioPharm Insight. She says, her hearing loss has leveled off for now. Living in New York she's careful to protect her ears from loud voices. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.