In My Patients’ Shoes An audiologist must deal with her own sudden sensorineural hearing loss. First Person/Last Page
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First Person/Last Page  |   April 01, 2016
In My Patients’ Shoes
Author Notes
  • Heather Knutson, MS, MA, CCC-A/SLP, is an audiologist and speech-language pathologist in Southern California. She is pursuing a doctoral degree in public health from Loma Linda University. hknutson@llu.edu
    Heather Knutson, MS, MA, CCC-A/SLP, is an audiologist and speech-language pathologist in Southern California. She is pursuing a doctoral degree in public health from Loma Linda University. hknutson@llu.edu×
Article Information
Hearing Disorders / First Person/Last Page
First Person/Last Page   |   April 01, 2016
In My Patients’ Shoes
The ASHA Leader, April 2016, Vol. 21, 72. doi:10.1044/leader.FPLP.21042016.72
The ASHA Leader, April 2016, Vol. 21, 72. doi:10.1044/leader.FPLP.21042016.72
Heather Knutson with her husband, Darrell, and daughters Megan, 9, and Jillian, 11.
I woke up on a Friday to pressure in my right ear that would not clear and that quickly became very painful. I work with an otolaryngologist, and we both admired my bulging eardrum, using her video otoscope. She suggested a round of antibiotics.
A second trip the following morning found us marveling at the gaping hole that had been my tympanic membrane. She packed my ear canal with antibiotic ointment and gauze. When the packing was removed, sounds were obnoxious and distorted on the right. The hearing in my right ear quickly declined to a moderately severe mixed loss with no otoacoustic emissions. The headache, pain and roaring tinnitus I had been experiencing were now joined by aural fullness and mild vertigo.
My daughters’ voices were diplophonic. I sat in front of the TV to see how low I could turn the volume before I couldn’t understand, listening first with both ears and then plugging each ear alternately. The distorted hearing in the right ear overtook the normal hearing in the left and I could not localize. At a friend’s birthday party, I found myself sitting by myself, too self-conscious to join in any discussions.

I work with folks every day who have hearing loss; I did not expect to have a first-hand account of what it felt like.

I was placed on several medications, including a very aggressive steroid therapy. I was warned that the chance of recovering any hearing was 40 percent. I began to wonder how much time should pass before I should consider amplification. For me, there was a sense of finality combined with a belligerent, “This can’t be happening!” I work with folks every day who have hearing loss; I did not expect to have a first-hand account of what it felt like.
I made a point of reading everything I could find on sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSNHL). What I found was often contradictory. Even within our relatively small audiology community, treatment for SSNHL varies—and many people receive no intervention because they aren’t referred to an audiologist or otolaryngologist. Recovery without medical intervention is roughly 47–63 percent; with corticosteroids, it’s about 41–61 percent, according to medscape.com.
First the vertigo went away, then the pain began to ease. Sounds became less distorted and my tinnitus became more bearable. My tympanic membrane healed within five days, but I still have a shallow type A tympanogram, indicating restricted eardrum movement. Over time, my otoacoustic emissions (DPOAEs and TEOAEs, which indicate the health of the outer hair cells in the inner ear) came back and my pure tone thresholds returned to normal.
Now, just over a year later, only the tinnitus remains, especially when I am tired. Sometimes it appears as one ultra-high frequency and sometimes it is more of a hissing metallic waterfall. I do not appreciate the waterfall.
I speak up more than I used to about SSNHL and hearing conservation. As professionals, we can empathize with patients when they tell us how their hearing loss affects them—whether or not we have experienced it firsthand. I’ve found that patients appreciate when we stop and listen to them, even when we can’t reassure them that their hearing will get better.
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April 2016
Volume 21, Issue 4