Implant allows St. Joseph man to hear

Monday, October 23, 2006

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Audiologist Kristen Dawson covers her mouth so firefighter Dennis Dornhoffer isn't tempted to read her lips.

As Dawson speaks, electronic pulses are created and sent into the St. Joseph Fire Department captain's brain, activating previously inactive nerves in his inner ear.

Dornhoffer's brain is getting accustomed to the small, complex electronic device -- a custom-fitted bionic aid -- implanted in his head five months ago.

"The hearing part of my brain was in a coma," said Dornhoffer. "And it is waking up again."

The sound of his voice still sounds a little foreign -- almost unreal. His Jimi Hendrix records have a richer bass to them. When he hears a click outside, he knows the air conditioner is about to switch on.

And when he gets called out to a blaze, the specific crackling of the fire is a novelty.

But it wasn't always like this. In 1973, two years after joining the department, Dornhoffer, then 23, started to notice his hearing significantly deteriorating. It was a condition marked by fewer than necessary hair cells needed to stimulate his cochlear nerves.

He inherited the hearing impairment from his father, shared it with his brother and sister, and years later passed it to his son. For more than 30 years, through sometimes quiet grumblings that questioned whether the impairment compromised his ability as a firefighter, he tried several types of hearing aids.

But they only amplified sound. He wanted clear distinction to words, so he could hear such things as the nuanced cracklings of the dispatcher calling out a fire.

During a family reunion in July 2005, his cousin, who had the same condition, told him about cochlear implant surgery. By the next May, Dornhoffer, at 56, was in the hospital awaiting the surgeon with his fire helmet and oxygen mask on.

"Everyone around was staring at me with my equipment on," said Dornhoffer. "(The surgeon) marked the spots around, and said he'd see me in 15 minutes."

The first post-implant sound he heard was his own voice.

"It was kind of like in 'Independence Day,' when the alien grabbed that guy around his neck," he said.

Over the months, Dornhoffer and those around him have adjusted to his new life in the hearing world. Sometimes he still has to remind his mother that she doesn't need to grab his arm before talking so he can complement her voice by reading her lips. His wife, Sue, would switch the hallway light on and off when he was working downstairs to indicate supper was ready.

"I'm like, you don't have to do this anymore," he said. "Just yell down."

Sue Dornhoffer said the sensitivity of her husband's other senses are still sharp, evolved from years of reduced use of hearing.

"He is always watching more -- more alert. The average person just focuses on what is ahead of them," she said. "I can't even hear myself scratch my arm, but he can."

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