Bill Kuhn

Breaking the Silence

Bill Kuhn and his wife Diane BowersBill Kuhn can’t pinpoint the moment when the world went silent. He just knows his long career as a general contractor – and years of noise from power tools – took a toll on his hearing. Over time, the volume on the life around him gradually got turned down.

Then it more or less vanished.

“I guess there’s a point where everyone’s hearing and you’re not, and then you put two and two together,” said Bill, 75. Once he did, he got a hearing aid. But it didn’t help much, especially when he tried to follow a conversation. Bill got by as best he could lip reading. But eventually he started to avoid events that he loved, like the book club meetings he’d attended for more than 20 years.

“It got to the point where his life was getting narrower and narrower,” said his wife, Diane Bowers, 73.

At the time Diane was being treated for vertigo by Dr. Alan Langman, an otolaryngologist (or ear, nose and throat doctor) who treats all kinds of hearing and balance issues at the Northwest Hearing & Balance clinic. She got to know the easygoing doctor and learned he performed cochlear implant surgery, which can help restore some sound to people with severe hearing loss. She urged Bill to visit the clinic.

A cochlear implant consists of two main parts: an external portion that sits behind the ear, and a second part that is surgically placed under the skin just above the ear. Unlike a hearing aid, which only amplifies sound, a cochlear implant bypasses the damaged part of the ear and delivers electrical signals directly to the hearing nerve in the brain. The brain then translates those signals into sounds. According to Dr. Langman, cochlear implants have been around for more than 30 years, and the technology has greatly improved over time. The devices themselves have shrunk, while the software powering them has rapidly advanced. They are now a common device used to treat deafness and profound hearing loss.

Typically, a series of screening tests determines whether or not a patient is a good candidate for a cochlear implant. It didn’t take long to determine where Bill stood.

“We got to the appointment, and Iris, the clinic’s audiologist, told me the tests would take a little while,” Diane recalled. “Not one minute later she came out and said that Bill was
definitely a candidate. He hadn’t heard a single word she said.”

Dr. Langman booked Bill for surgery at Northwest Hospital a few weeks later. The procedure took only a couple of hours, after which Bill went home. A month after the procedure, Bill and Diane went back to Dr. Langman’soffice to turn on the cochlear implant. Iris told Bill to let her know once he heard something and started to speak a series of phrases. A few seconds went by. Nothing. Diane worried the device wasn’t working. Then Bill looked up at Iris and said, “I hear you.”

Diane burst into tears.

“I was just so happy because it had been so long since he could hear,” she said.

“Since I could follow orders, you mean,” Bill quipped, smiling.

He has cheerfully been following orders ever since. Dr. Langman says he has never tired of witnessing moments like these in the three decades he has been performing cochlear implant surgery.

“Of all the things I do, this procedure gives me the most joy,” he said. “It still gives me an ‘oh wow’ experience when I can restore someone’s hearing so they can communicate with their loved ones and function better in the world. Cochlear implants restore more than sound for people. They restore relationships, too.”

Two memorable moments as Bill rediscovered the world of sound were hearing the whirr of a bird’s wings and the gentle gurgle of running water in the sink.

Not long after the surgery, Bill and Diane took a trip to Arizona. One night, a hummingbird flew by as they walked back from dinner. Diane asked Bill if he heard it. He did not. So she told him to stop and really listen. And he heard the sound of flight for the first time in years.

It was a striking moment. The couple keeps a birdfeeder in the backyard of their Shoreline home and loves to admire the visitors that fly by. But for Bill, their swooping and flapping and chirping were always silent until now.

Like all cochlear implant patients, Bill regularly visits Northwest Hearing & Balance to have his device fine-tuned. Bill and Diane deeply appreciate the personal care that Dr. Langman and his staff provide. “He’s such a nice guy on top of being a miracleworker,” Bill said.

Although the once-avid hikers have slowed down a bit, Bill and Diane still love the outdoors. They walk as much as they can, frequently strolling the seven miles to Edmonds and back from their home. They chat the whole time – a simple joy that used to be a challenge before Bill got his cochlear implant.

“It’s just one miracle after another,” Diane said. “He has his life back. What more can you ask for?”

For more information on services at Northwest Hearing & Balance, visit http://www.nwhospital.org/hearing.

Share Tweet

Share Your Story