Closing the Curtain on Hearing Loss

Shirley DiMarco is on a mission. The Chambersburg, Pennsylvania retiree wants everyone with hearing loss to know about the amazing device that brought tears of joy to her eyes and sound to her ears after two years of cruel silence.

“I still can hardly talk about it without crying,” Mrs. DiMarco said, recalling a visit to her community theatre that transformed her life.

Mrs. DiMarco was attending a program at Chambersburg’s historic Capitol Theatre, but could not hear a word that was being said. She mentioned her problem to the theatre’s Executive Director Jon Meyer, who quickly fetched her one of the theatre’s new Williams Sound FM listening systems that had been anonymously donated by a theater patron with a passion for helping people with hearing loss.

She was doubtful it would work.

After all, she had not been able to hear or speak clearly for two years, not even with hearing aids. A sudden hearing loss had left her nearly deaf in one ear and tormented by a constant feeling of pressure in both ears that would get so bad at times she would have to go to bed. Adding insult to injury, the prolific public speaker was left with a slow, raspy voice that put a crimp in her beloved speaking engagements.

With nothing to lose, she put on the earphone with the theatre director’s encouragement.

“Her eyes just lit up,” Mr. Meyer recalled. “It really was life changing. It was like a new lease on life.”

Choking back tears, Mrs. DiMarco remembered the moment the system was turned on.

“I started to cry,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I can hear! I can hear!”

The next day, Mrs. DiMarco called the theatre to find out where she could buy a consumer version of the hearing device.

Referred to hearing loss solutions supplier Harris Communications in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, she was determined to buy the system no matter the cost. Harris Communications’ customer service team recommended a Williams Sound Pocketalker 2.0, a personal amplifier that could be used with headphones or earbuds, and double as a t-coil receiver in venues equipped with hearing loops. Then they told her the cost: $189, and shipping was free.

“All I could think was I spent $6,000 for hearing aids and I’ve been to this ENT and that ENT and even visited Johns Hopkins,” she recalled.

Also located in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie, Williams Sound has been helping people hear better since 1976 through its wide range of consumer and commercial assistive listening technology. 

After receiving her Pocketalker in the mail, Mrs. DiMarco enlisted the help of a severely hard of hearing neighbor who had been using other assistive technology for years. He encouraged her to take off her hearing aids and try it with just the earbuds. Suddenly she could not only hear better, but most of the pressure disappeared and her speech miraculously returned to normal.

“I really got a shock,” she said. “I heard my voice with the Pocketalker for the first time since July the ninth, 2015. I started to tear. I could not believe this implement was working for me without hearing aids.”

Dr. Brooke Lewandowski, Au.D. CCC-A, an audiologist with the Medical College of Wisconsin-HEAR Wisconsin, explained how hearing loss can affect a person’s speech and leave them with the sensation of pressure in their ears.

“When a person has a severe degree of hearing loss that goes untreated, their voice can become slow and nasally because that person is now relying on the vibration of vocal cords to monitor their own speech production,” Dr. Lewandowski noted. “Without amplification they are unable to monitor the sound of their own voice because they cannot hear it correctly. When Shirley wears the Pocketalker she can hear her own voice more clearly and can monitor its production more appropriately.”

Sometimes when people have a difference between their ears (left ear worse than right) it is perceived as fullness or as a pressure sensation even when it physically is not there, Dr. Lewandowski added.

“When Shirley wears the Pocketalker that imbalance between her ears is no longer present, which is why she no longer perceives the fullness,” she explained.

Hearing aids should provide these same benefits, so Dr. Lewandowski suggested that Mrs. DiMarco see her audiologist or hearing health professional to have her hearing aids evaluated for proper fit and amplification.

Ever since Mrs. DiMarco experienced her Pocketalker miracle, she has been canvassing her community advocating the device as an affordable solution for hearing loss, making copies of product literature and handing it out to anyone with a hearing need.

“The Pocketalker is for people who are missing out on so much,” she said. “It’s amazing. When I’m not using it, I can only talk for a little bit and catch my breath. My ears are plugged all the time. Whenever I use this, I do not have that pressure. I can sing now. I can carry a tune. I hear all these drug commercials all the time and they tell you all of the side effects. I paid $189 for this and there’s no side effects. It’s all plusses. This is what should be on TV. A lot of people that have hearing problems can’t afford hearing aids and this is affordable. There is no risk. It’s a no brainer!”

A regular at local ladies’ luncheons, Mrs. DiMarco said the Pocketalker is also excellent for hearing better at luncheons and restaurants.

“Going in crowds, your hearing aid is not good at all,” she said. “If you’re more than three or four people, that’s it. I was in a luncheon and there were eight of us and I put this Pocketalker on the table and I was able to hear.”

Back at the Capitol Theatre, Mr. Meyer was so impressed with Shirley’s amazing experience, he quickly relayed her story to the anonymous equipment’s donor, who in turn decided to contribute a modern all-digital sound system to the theatre that will vastly improve sound quality for all patrons by evenly distributing sound throughout the auditorium without drops or explosions of sound. 

Hearing loss hits close to home for Meyer, whose father was deaf in one ear and mother wore hearing aids.

“Theatre is about storytelling,” he said. “If you can’t hear it, what’s the point? It’s vital that you be able to hear the words so you get the story. When you offer patrons something that works, it’s very satisfying to me and the Capitol Theater.”

Treat Sudden Hearing Loss Immediately

Those who experience sudden hearing loss like Mrs. DiMarco should seek immediate medical attention, advised Dr. Lewandowski.

“Time is critical when it comes to treating someone with sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSNHL),” she cautioned. “The treatment plan is the administration of steroids within 48-72 hours of the initial loss. About one-third of patients experience full recovery, one-third experience partial recovery and one-third experience no recovery of hearing.”

There are many theories as to the cause of a sudden hearing loss, but most cases are classified as idiopathic (unknown).

“SSNHL is a negative chemical reaction in the ear, producing free radicals that permanently damage the hair cells of the inner ear,” she explained. “Without the proper function of these cells a person cannot hear appropriately. SSNHL typically occurs in one ear only, but it can occur in both ears at the same time or affect the second ear later on. It can occur at any age and the degree of hearing loss can vary. It is typically accompanied by an episode of vertigo upon waking from sleep.”