Marlin Hutchison: Learning to hear again

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

Severe hearing loss is more than an inability to follow a conversation.

It’s losing the enjoyment of listening to music. It’s the end of telephone conversations with a friend. It’s the inability to communicate with grandchildren. It’s avoiding theaters and speeches. It’s watching a flock of crows flying overhead silently. It’s not recognizing an out-of-tune lawnmower engine.

hutch It’s the sum of all these losses and more, and it adds up to a feeling of separation from society.

“Over a period of time as you lose your hearing,” said Marlin “Hutch” Hutchison, “you have such difficulty that you tend to pull back from society. So much is lost. It’s easier to just withdraw.”

When considering a social outing, he finally reached the point where he would ask himself, “What reason is there to go?” He would miss most of what was said. He would only end up misunderstanding a statement and responding with something that sounded completely off the wall. It was his hearing that was failing and he didn’t want to sound as though he was losing his mind as well.

About five years ago, Hutch was tested by a physician from the Cleveland Clinic and diagnosed with genetic hearing loss. Conditions continued to deteriorate until there wasn’t much hearing left.

“At first I thought my hearing aids were going bad,” he said. “It was time to make a serious commitment to seek help.”

Hutch’s family physician in Morenci, Dr. Shetty, and his staff researched options which led to an appointment at the Michigan Ear Institute in Farmington Hills. He soon learned that he was a candidate for a cochlear implant.

This meant he would wear a small sound processor on top of his ear, much like a hearing aid. The processor would receive sound and convert it to digital information.

The signal would be transmitted via a small, flexible wire to an antenna about the size of a quarter. The antenna would attach to the side of his head by a magnet. Another magnet would be located just under his skin in the implant attached to his skull.

From the implant, an array of tiny electrodes would feed down to the inner ear where nerves would carry the information to the brain. That’s how it works with normal hearing—the brain interprets what the hearing nerves send—but in this case, the brain isn’t hearing what it’s been accustomed to hearing. In many ways, it would be like starting all over.

Bionic ear

When Hutch got his hearing back via a cochlear implant, life didn’t suddenly become better.

It wasn’t like a blind man who was finally able to see. Not even like being able to smell again after a lengthy cold.

It was mostly just a lot of noise.

A year ago December, Hutch entered Oakwood Hospital in Dearborn for the implant surgery. He was released after a day and went home for the mandatory month before returning to his physician at the Michigan Ear Institute to have the processor turned on.

Testing got underway to determine settings for the initial use of the implant. The first sound he heard was the clatter of the keyboard on the audiologist’s computer.

That was interesting, but there wasn’t much more.

“My recollection of the initial sounds heard was a very disturbing, roaring echo sound,” Hutch said.

He had been warned that his first few hours or days would not bring a return to normal hearing. The brain was not acclimated to hearing via this arrangement.

However, during a conversation between the audiologist and Hutch’s wife, Joyce, Hutch was able to follow the exchange. The audiologist was amazed and Hutch’s spirits were lifted. It had been years since he was able to follow a normal conversation.

That gave him hope for the future, but it was soon obvious that he had a long way to go on the road to hearing restoration.

“When we walked out of the building, I had imagined I would hear traffic sounds of horns blaring, roaring engines, tires squealing and squeaking brakes,” he said. “However, what I heard was much like the sound of rushing winds.”

He was at the wheel on the trip home and his attention was too much focused on his hearing. The van had rattles and squeaks that he never knew existed.

“I thought our car was going to fall apart,” he said.

He even considered stopping in Toledo to shop for a new, quieter vehicle. Finally, between Ann Arbor and Toledo, he turned the processor off.

“The stress of the new sounds was more than I could handle,” he said.

The trip home didn’t get any better. While Joyce did some shopping, Hutch tuned in a radio station, but music didn’t sound like much of anything.

“In fact, nothing was recognizable,” he said.

He tried to find a news station with only talk, but other than a few words of a weather forecast, everything was unintelligible.

“So,” Hutch said, “that was the beginning of my new life.”

Adjusting

At home, Hutch came inside with an armful of firewood and thought he heard water dripping. Impossible. They had a new roof. He looked for a puddle and found none. He walked into the kitchen and the sound was louder. Still no wet spot on the floor. Then he noticed how the dripping sound matched the jump of the second hand on the clock.

That wasn’t the first time he was puzzled by a sound. He was hearing again, but in a new way.

“They guarantee it won’t be normal hearing,” Hutch said. “but they tell you that your brain will convert to the new way of hearing.”

That evening he noticed that he was able to understand Joyce to a surprising extent when he used his lip reading ability along with the new processor.

“It was remarkable how fast I was able to acclimate in the first few hours,” he said, and it kept getting better—until he went back for his three-week checkup.

Some additional adjustments were made, leaving him to wonder why they had to mess things up. But the change was for the better—it just required further acclimation from the brain—and Hutch was amazed how he was hearing more and more every day.

“So many new sounds were coming through and I was spellbound for days,” he recalls.

A lot of the sounds were puzzling and he often had to ask someone to identify the source. Now, a year later, the astounding nature of his implant is more matter of fact.

“A lot of sounds seem normal,” Hutch said. “You learn to hear the new tone and associate it with the old.”

A crow sounds like a crow. A chickadee sounds like a chickadee. But a bluejay’s scream is more like a squawk.

“The rhythm doesn’t change. You put the two together and make the association. It’s not just the tone you listen to anymore until you learn the new sound.”

Hutch’s life has changed significantly since acquiring the implants and he wants others to know the possibilities. There are a lot of people with severe hearing loss and there’s a lot of help available, and not only through the implant route.

That’s what worked for him and he’s glad he took the step.

“It’s amazing what I started out with the first week and what I have now,” he said. “It really works.”

Loss started as teenager 

Hearing loss was a long time coming for Marlin Hutchison.

hutch-close When he was a high school student in the mid-1950s, Hutch noticed he had a lot of trouble understanding some teachers’ voices, particularly the soft-spoken women.

“You didn’t go through hearing tests back then,” Hutch said. “I was written off as a student with an attitude.”

That was only partly correct, he says.

He was tested in 1961 and diagnosed with “farmer’s ear.” When out in the field, farmers would generally look back over their right shoulder at a plow or combine, exposing the left ear to the sound of the exhaust. Hutch had spent some time on a tractor and around other machinery. He acquired his first hearing aid and noticed the improvement.

As he raised a family, he often didn’t correctly understand what was being said and that caused some stress within the household.

Subsequent testing determined hearing loss in the right ear, as well, and he acquired a second hearing aid. Again, that was a great improvement.

He was able to fulfill the lifelong dream of obtaining a pilot license and logged nearly 400 hours in the air before voluntarily surrendering his license. Eventually it became too difficult to understand radio voices and he was experiencing vertigo—a dizzying disorientation often related to hearing problems.

His hearing loss continued to grow and certain sounds would affect him physically. The town fire siren and a horn honk of a particular frequency could bring him to his knees.

He watched television with no sound and the closed caption turn on. He studied lip reading, never used the telephone and started avoiding social situations.

Finally, he decided to go for a cochlear implant.

Support

Adjusting to a new way of hearing was rough at times, but one thing that helped make it bearable was his support partner—another implant patient arranged through Advanced Bionics, the company that manufactures Hutch’s implant.

Brian, a man from Nebraska, communicates with Hutch by e-mail. They trade experiences and give encouragement.

“I believe Brian’s favorite expression is ‘Patience, old man, patience’,” said Hutch. “Brian’s input has been a most comforting experience. It can be stressful at times because you try so hard to make it work.”

There’s another experience that Hutch has found rewarding—helping out with the Habitat for Humanity house under construction in Morenci. As a member of the work crew, he’s become useful, he’s socializing and he’s having a great time.

“It put me back in the line of being functional,” he said. “It’s the best therapy I could have.”

Hutch’s hearing will never be the same as when he was a youngster. It will never be what others consider normal, and many voices and situations will still pose problems. But he knows that without the implant, he is now totally deaf and he’s very grateful for the hearing that’s returned.

- Nov. 23, 2005 

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