Sunnybrook is not only Ontario’s go-to centre for cochlear implants, its physicians are working on new ways to restore sound to people facing deafness
A cochlear implant didn’t just give Faryn Wegler the ability to hear; it gave her a voice.
And that voice will help her find a career she loves. “Before my implant, I was very shy,” says this 24-year-old Thornhill, Ont., student. “I purposely avoided conversations because I couldn’t hear what people were saying. I thought I’d have trouble finding work.”
“Now,” says Faryn, “I know what’s going on around me and I connect better with people. I’m confident I’ll get a job in my field.”
Faryn, who is a postgraduate student in Fashion Management and Promotions at Humber College, has a progressive and mysterious type of hearing loss that was discovered when she was 13 years old. Because she was such a good student, she made it through elementary and high school with “my own accommodations,” such as sitting in the front row and learning to read lips. But, still, she often felt embarrassed by her secret. “No one was ever directly mean to me, but I felt left out. I would ask people to repeat themselves and they’d say, ‘Oh, never mind.’”
"This is a medical miracle for many patients," says
Dr. Joseph Chen. "they go from silence to hearing
speech immediately at switch on."
In 2013, the hearing in her right ear had deteriorated to the point that she qualified for a cochlear implant. Faryn came to the right place – Sunnybrook, which performs about 120 cochlear implants a year. It offers the largest adult cochlear implant program in Canada and is one of the top three in North America.
“Cochlear implantation is a fast-expanding biomedical marvel that combines a sophisticated microprocessor and an electrode system in the inner ear, to restore hearing,” says Dr. Joseph Chen, director of the Cochlear Implant Program and chief of the department of otolaryngology (head and neck surgery) at Sunnybrook. Until recently, cochlear implants were only considered for the most profoundly deaf patients, who had no hearing at all. But because of improvements in technology, they are an option for a much larger number of people, including those with moderately severe hearing loss. “Now,” says Dr. Chen, “people who struggle with hearing aids are candidates for cochlear implants.”
Sunnybrook, which is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, is the co-ordinating site for all four of Ontario’s cochlear implant centres, including the Hospital for Sick Children. Sunnybrook has worldwide stature in the field and is hosting an international cochlear implant symposium in 2016.
“As a group, we’ve moved the program forward by increasing its scope and size. Greater funding in recent years has reduced our waiting list to six months, from up to three years,” says Dr. Chen.
Faryn’s surgery was conducted in May 2013 by Dr. Chen. Like most people who live with hearing loss, Faryn’s auditory nerve was still functioning, but the tiny hair cells inside the cochlea in her inner ear were damaged.
HOW IT WORKS
Here’s how cochlear implants work: The surgeon implants a small receiver into the bone behind the ear and feeds an array of electrodes into the snail-shaped cochlea in the inner ear. Externally, a small speech processor is attached behind the ear. The patient is given a month to recover from the surgery before the device is turned on. Once activated, sounds enter a microphone and travel to the processor. There, they are converted into digital information that is sent to the electrodes, which stimulate the auditory nerve to send information to the brain.
Some patients have to do hearing exercises for weeks or even months to relearn sound, while others hear normal sound as soon as the device is activated.