To Hear Again

CEDAR HILL, TX — Billy Bob Fuller hasn’t always been hard of hearing,  but he may have been headed that way a good portion of his life. “I suffered from earaches my entire life. I couldn’t handle amusement rides because I would get so dizzy,” Billy explained. “We didn’t know it at the time, but the earaches were due to improper drainage.”

Billy later found out he had Meniere’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear, which affects balance and hearing, causing vertigo, dizziness, loss of hearing in one or both ears and ringing in the ears. Nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea, sweating and headaches are also common. Because of the issues with balance and dizziness, falling and resulting injuries also accompany the disease. While the disease is incurable, the symptoms can be treated.

Hearing loss, for some reason, is something people tend to deny, yet if untreated it sequesters them and frustrates those who try to communicate with them. Our five senses inform our bodies of data necessary for us to function. Therefore, the loss or impairment of any sense prohibits full function and interaction with situations and others. Typically, we don’t even realize what functionality different parts of our bodies provide until we lose that through injury, illness or degeneration.

Billy’s hearing loss came on gradually, with little affect on his lifestyle or profession, until about 15 years ago. As a young child, he met the Lord and felt called to ministry as a teen. Following his 1970 graduation from Kimball High School, he joined the Air Force, where he served as an electrical power production specialist, spending time in Germany, Spain and Oklahoma before being honorably discharged. He attended Dallas Baptist College (now Dallas Baptist University) and began his career in ministry. “I had trained as a singer and was a music minister,” Billy stated. “I began to pastor in 1982, serving throughout Texas.

“Music meant everything to me — it was basically my life plan,” Billy remarked. “So when I began to lose my hearing, I also began to lose music.” With an inner ear  malfunction, most commonly, the first thing you lose is consonants. You can still hear vowel sounds, but without consonants words lose their definition. “I was lip reading without even realizing it.” Billy became more acutely aware of his loss when he realized he could not hear the prayer requests of people who came forward
for ministry.

Denial of actual hearing loss is common, because of the gradual nature, unless there has been a specific injury. Sound arrives in the middle ear as sound or pressure waves, which are then transmitted to the inner ear through the tympanic membrane as mechanical signals traveling through the liquid and membranes. In the inner ear is a snail-shaped cavity with some 30,000 tiny  hairs over which these waves move. The Duncanville NOW auditory nerve which relays the message hairs transmit sound as impulses to the to the brain, where sound waves are interpreted to the language we use to communicate.

“Initially, I went to an audiologist. Because my hearing loss was not considered military-related, I had no VA benefits to cover any tests or hearing devices. Only after Texas Rehab ordered an MRI did the VA [agree] to pay for hearing aids,” Billy recalled. By this time Billy’s hearing had deteriorated to the point he had to use alarms that vibrated or had blinking lights to attract his attention. “In 2004, I began trying to get a cochlear implant, because the hearing aids just didn’t provide enough tones for me to discern words. My DARS rep, assigned to those with hearing loss, had been born deaf, so he didn’t truly understand how devastating having hearing and then losing it could be. He didn’t see the importance of doing all you could to regain it.”

Billy found that hearing people could not relate to his loss, especially in regard to music. Billy’s efforts to assure them, that though he could no longer hear much or lead singing, he could still minister, seemed to be to no avail. “I thought maybe I could work in deaf ministry, and so I wanted to start a deaf church in Oklahoma. I discovered I wasn’t quite deaf enough to fit into the deaf culture and ended up returning to the Dallas/Ft. Worth area to care for my mother,” he said. That was when he met a man named John Ayers, who has become somewhat of a spokesman for cochlear implants.

The implant consists of a metal plate placed under the skin on the skull with a wire that goes through the mastoid and through the turns inside the cochlea providing 22 points of transmission to the brain in the form of electrical/ digital impulses from an external digital processor worn like a hearing aid behind the ear — all to replace the transmission that the natural hairs within the cochlea provide.

In 2004, Billy had gone to Dallas Hearing Foundation at Medical City, where he met Dr. Peters, otologic surgeon, hoping to receive funding for a cochlear implant. Securing funds was tough, because the implant was seen as an unnecessary treatment. By 2007, with John as an advocate, Billy was able to pursue an implant, because his left hearing was now completely gone, and he could no longer understand speech. At DARS, Division for Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (formerly known as Texas Rehab), Billy met Mary Carry, who had been hearing, lost her hearing and now had an implant. She encouraged him to continue applying, and once again, he found himself in contact with the Dallas Hearing Foundation. DARS finally funded his cause.

“I was subjected to all sorts of extensive audiological testing to determine what I could and couldn’t hear, as well as what I could understand. Candidates were chosen based on the level of decibel you could hear. You had to be labeled in the ‘profound’ or worse category, have gone through a psych evaluation and MRIs to ‘clear you’ of any tumors. The MRIs helped to determine exactly what degree and where the implant would be positioned.”

Once the implant is in place, a speech therapist retrains a person to understand what the brain is hearing and communicating. “Implants don’t produce the same type of hearing you have,” Billy stated. “My brain had to be retrained to interpret the digital impulses. It’s a rather long process to learn how
to understand speech again. At first, the bombardment of sound is like a freight train running through your head. You cannot distinguish individual sounds or directionality. But I was able to hear a clock for the first time in 20 years!” For Billy, the cochlear implant broke the isolation he was experiencing. “I still can’t do music, but I can hear again!”

Written Beverly Shay.