Dr. Willie Hamilton has dedicated his life to early detection and treatment of various cancers. As a healer, he’s been able to save and improve the lives of many struggling with one of the worst diagnoses you can face. As a professor, he’s been able to research early cancer diagnosis and train the next generation of cancer doctors.
But Dr. Hamilton has a story of his own, the story of his arduous struggle with profound hearing loss and how he ultimately overcame it after 30 years.
In 1982, a young Willie Hamilton had just completed his doctoral education. He prepared to enter the field of general medicine. It was at this time that he began to notice a problem. Colleagues would ask him questions. He would not hear them. His wife would call him from the other side of the room to dinner, but he thought she’d said something else. He was asking people to repeat themselves many times a day.
He visited a hearing specialist where he received a diagnosis of profound hearing loss.
Understanding how important his ability to communicate with patients and medical staff was, he did not hesitate in purchasing his first set of hearing aids. They allowed him to continue his work.
But while the hearing devices helped him hear better and stay more connected with friends and family, hearing aids of the ’80s and ’90s weren’t as advanced as the digital hearing aids of today. He still struggled with misunderstandings, and he learned to compensate by learning to lip read.
This helped him in the exam room, but like many doctors, he also needed to communicate with other doctors on the phone where reading lips wasn’t an option. He worked out systems where his staff would handle patient phone calls, acting as an interpreter.
It wasn’t ideal, but it worked.
Around the year 2000, he learned about a surgical treatment that might restore his hearing and eliminate his need for hearing aids. Despite the risks, he decided to take a chance.
Dr. Hamilton underwent cochlear implant surgery.
The cochlea is a snail-shaped section of your inner ear that houses the tiny hair-like nerve cells that pick up sound. These cells then transmit that sound through the auditory nerves and into the brain.
In someone with Dr. Hamilton’s form of hearing loss, these tiny hair cells become damaged and die. You have millions of these little cells so this may not happen all at once. But once these hair cells die, your body has no mechanism to regrow them. Just like losing a finger, once they’re gone, they’re gone.
A cochlear implant bypasses the need for these little hairs. It translates sound into mild electrical impulses that stimulate the auditory nerve in a way that the brain perceives as sound.
Part of the cochlear implant is surgically implanted. The other part is outside the ear where it picks up sound much like a hearing aid.
Doctor Hamilton underwent the surgery. Unfortunately, he contracted an infection after the procedure that further damaged his hearing. The implant had to be removed to treat the infection, and when it was re-implanted the damage had already been done.
Dr. Hamilton thought his chance to hear again may be gone forever. But a lot happens in just 10 years in hearing science.
Cochlear implants have continued to improve just like hearing aids. In Dr. Hamilton’s case, a hearing aid wasn’t a viable option any longer because of the additional damage caused by the infection. So in 2017, he received the much improved modern cochlear implant.
Dr. Hamilton had been without his full hearing for nearly 30 years. He described the first time he heard his cell phone ring. He was walking in the park with his wife. He pulled it out of his pocket and instinctively handed it to his wife to answer.
But he didn’t need to do that anymore.
His cochlear implant had bluetooth technology that connected wirelessly to his phone. The cell phone’s ring and then the voices after he answered were transmitted directly into his implants. He now loves that he can talk with people on the phone again at work and at home.
He can hear the birds in the park. He can hear his wife’s voice. He can hear his colleagues and students at the university. He’s able to continue his cancer research and teaching the next generation of doctors with less effort. After 30 years developing workarounds to continue to pursue his career in cancer research he can do it with each of his senses at their best.
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