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Excuse me? I hope this isn't radioactive...

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image Dr. Scott Sims of Physician’s Choice Hearing & Dizziness Center in Sun City Center. Dr. Sims made it possible for me to hear the world again. Mitch Traphagen Photo

I can only hope people aren’t trying to tell me I’m on fire or holding something radioactive.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

A few weeks ago, for the first time in my life, I felt disabled. On a Friday night, I was covering an outdoor event and it was humid, I was sweating, and there was occasional light rain. One of my hearing aids died. At the time, I wasn’t too worried about it. My hearing aids have been in two hemispheres, two oceans, back roads and alleyways, thunderstorms, tropical storms, and I once accidentally jumped into the shower while wearing them. For such tiny and fragile-appearing electronics, they have taken a beating and have kept on working.

But this time, it didn’t come back to life and I began losing contact with the outside world.

My hearing loss is significant. On my audiogram, the graphical results of my hearing test, there is a line that shows where normal hearing should be along a scale of sound frequencies. I don’t have a single point that reaches the line, much of it is far, far below it. In 2006, when I got my first set of hearing aids I was suddenly hearing things that I hadn’t heard since I was a child.

I’m not quite sure how they managed to do this but most insurance companies have separated hearing from health. Very few people have coverage for hearing disorders and hearing aids aren’t cheap. Six years ago, HearX in Sun City Center, my hearing care provider, found a federal/state program that helped pay for hearing aids for people who needed to hear to work. As a reporter, I easily fit into that category. I was grateful for the financial assistance — my hearing aids cost $5,800 back then.

When my hearing aid died, however, I found out just how closely hearing is indeed related to health. My hearing aids are so powerful that wearing just the one working aid was a nightmarish experience with sound blasting into one ear and next to nothing coming into the other. I literally felt as though I had lost my balance. Even sleeping was impacted as I began to have recurring nightmares of being old and disabled. I would then wake up feeling tired, old and disabled — because, at least for the latter, I was.

The simple act of going to a grocery store presented a challenge that seemed insurmountable. People would invariably say things to me that I would not understand. There is very little patience for a hearing disorder in this world because it is an invisible disability. Generally, I’ve found there is a three strikes rule — I can say “Excuse me, I didn’t hear that,” three times before the person talking will give up. I can only hope they aren’t trying to tell me I’m on fire or holding something radioactive.

The program I used to buy my hearing aids in 2006 is gone in the more austere era of 2012 and when my hearing aid died, I wasn’t in a position to immediately spend thousands of dollars on a new pair. Fortunately, Michelle found a very nice family in Riverview selling a five-year-old set that had been owned by a hearing-impaired relative. Since they were programmable, I simply needed to go to a hearing center to have them programmed for my hearing loss. But that turned out to be not so simple.

For six years, HearX has been wonderful. After my initial purchase, I never paid for anything again including new hearing tests and the resultant adjustments to my hearing aids. They would have been more than happy to have helped with the new used hearing aids, even though I didn’t buy them there, but they didn’t have an account with that manufacturer, nor the software to program them. That didn’t seem to be a problem, though, as the manufacturer’s website listed an authorized hearing care center right here in South Hillsborough.

But it turned out to be not so simple. That hearing care center refused to program them because I didn’t buy the hearing aids from them. In other words, I was a patient in need of help; they had the means to help, but refused to do so since I hadn’t dropped $6,000 on them. Everyone, including hearing centers, has to pay the rent so I fully expected to pay for their service — but they weren’t interested in little money, they wanted big money. And they weren’t interested in helping me. No, I won’t mention the name of the place — suffice to say, you’ll never encounter me in their waiting room.

HearX recommended I contact Dr. Scott Sims of Physician’s Choice Hearing & Dizziness Center in Sun City Center. As a backup, Michelle called other area hearing centers, most said they could program the hearing aids, all were surprised to learn that any hearing center would refuse to do so.

A few hours later, I was in Dr. Sims office while he downloaded old software to program my somewhat elderly hearing aids. Programming them wasn’t easy — technology had moved on — but he didn’t give up. He knows how important hearing is and that hearing and health are one and the same. He missed lunch to do it, but an hour or so later I left his office hearing most of what the world had to say. A few days later, I was back to get them adjusted and to turn on the option that allows them to work with a telephone. Again, he had to suffer through using older, glitchy software, and again he didn’t give up.

Hearing aids aren’t just for old people. In the U.S., 36 million adults report some form of hearing loss. According to a 2010 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association one in five adolescents in the U.S. had some evidence of hearing loss. Personal music players with ear buds blasting in the latest tunes are at least partially to blame. Regardless of the reasons, the problem is significant and growing. For everyone, but particularly for young people, hearing loss could well affect everything from their employment opportunities, to their social life. The full impact of this silent but growing health crisis may not be felt for years to come and in that time, it may still not be well heard. The time to do something about it, however, is now. Parents, please get your children’s hearing tested. Don’t wait, do it now.

Dr. Sims said his sister is a speech pathologist and he, too, wanted to work at something that would help people. “I want to make a difference,” he said.

Speech therapy is a godsend for those who need it, but the results can take months or years to see. As an audiologist, Dr. Sims can enjoy the benefit of helping someone almost immediately. As I now know all too well, hearing aids can mean the difference between enjoying the world and being isolated from it. Hearing is very definitely a health issue.

It took him an hour and a half to adjust the old hearing aids but when he was done, I was hearing better than ever. I pulled out my credit card to pay for the second adjustment but Dr. Sims waved it away. I paid once, and for that, he wanted to make things right. “I’m more interested in building long-term relationships,” he said.

I started my car to drive home and became aware that the brake pedal made a click when I released it. I had never heard that before. I had never realized that my car stereo beeped when I changed songs. Suddenly, I was hearing life with all of its beeps, clicks and whooshes. I was amazed at just how much sound I was suddenly hearing.

Dr. Sims did exactly what he set out to do — he not only gave me back my hearing, a gift of infinite value to me, but I was able to watch him fulfill his own life goal. Dr. Sims made a difference.

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