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Archie Ingersoll, Published January 04 2014

Cochlear implant brings sweet sounds back to woman's life

Our lives are filled with firsts: some blissful, some tragic, some miraculous. These experiences often make great reads. That’s why The Forum recently put out a call to readers to share their firsts. In the coming days, we’ll be telling a handful of these stories. If you have a noteworthy first – your first love, first North Dakota winter, first hole-in-one there’s still time to send it to news@forumcomm.com.

MOORHEAD - Penny Burgau had forgotten about all the everyday sounds.

Her jacket zipper, the clicking of a turn signal, the thud of a baseball hitting a mitt. Even the roar of a coffee grinder had eluded her.

For years, Burgau had lived in a silent world because of severe hearing loss that left her essentially deaf. But the sounds of her daily life all came rushing back on Nov. 15, 2006, or as she calls it, her “turn-on date.”

It was the day her cochlear implant, an electronic device that bypasses non-working parts of the inner ear, was activated for the first time.

“It was instant,” the 60-year-old said of her improved hearing. “It was nothing gradual.”

Burgau, who works in the registrar’s office at Concordia College, can’t explain why she lost her hearing, but she believes it’s hereditary. It started fading steadily when she was 40 years old. And eventually, it reached the point that, even with hearing aids, she had to read lips, a process that added a layer of complexity to her job.

“I really didn’t answer the phone at work,” she said. “My co-workers were awesome to help me out. Otherwise, I probably would have had to quit.”

Burgau’s hearing problems did not keep her from socializing, and she was still able to watch her husband, Bucky Burgau, coach Concordia’s baseball team. But she had to give up singing in her choir because she could not hear the music.

Her situation turned for the worse when she was about 50 and began experiencing bouts of vertigo, a spinning sensation that can accompany hearing loss.

“I don’t wish that on my worst enemy,” she said. “I would rather have 12 children than have to deal with the vertigo.”

The nauseating spells of dizziness would leave her incapacitated and would last up to eight hours. Desperate for relief, she looked toward the cochlear implant, a procedure that can sometimes help with vertigo.

“I was to the point where I needed something for the vertigo,” she said. “I had nothing to lose.”

In October 2006, Burgau underwent surgery to have a cochlear implant placed in her right ear. After about a month of healing, she went to see her audiologist, Matt Frisk, to have it turned on.

Her parents, husband, two daughters and three nurses who helped with her surgery were crammed into Frisk’s office for the occasion. Frisk, knowing that Burgau could read lips, blocked his mouth and then spoke a single word to test the implant.

“Thursday,” he said.

Burgau heard the whole word clearly and crisply. Among the crowd, there were tears and clapping.

As a further test, Frisk went into the hall to ask her a question.

“I can’t remember what the question was, but I heard every word,” she said.

The Internet is flush with videos that capture moments like this. Often they show people who have been deaf all their lives hearing for the first time. What those videos don’t show is the lengthy process of having to learn language from scratch, Frisk said.

Because Burgau was not born deaf, she was able to understand language immediately after her implant was turned on, though she had to gradually become accustomed to hearing sound through the implant, Frisk said.

“It’s not a 100 percent cure,” Burgau said. “But I’ll say it was 90 percent for me.”

Frisk said Burgau, with her dramatic results, ranks among his more successful patients and that sometimes implants don’t give people the outcome they expect. Still for many, the procedure is a final resort after hearing aids stop working.

“It’s a bionic ear,” Frisk said. “It’s the last choice that you have other than being completely deaf.”

In Burgau’s case, she still has trouble hearing in settings with lots of background noise, and she continues to struggle to hear music, especially when it’s a piece with an array of sounds.

But the implant eliminated her vertigo, and it allows her to talk on the phone with ease at work. Around the house, she no longer has to be in the same room to read her husband’s lips when he’s trying to talk to her.

“It changed Penny’s life,” her husband said. “It changed all of our lives.”

Drives at night that were once quiet occasions for the couple are now filled with conversation.

“I like listening to ballgames on the radio, but now I have to listen to her,” her husband joked.

Not long after Burgau’s surgery, one of her grandchildren started talking. It was a sound that she cherished.

“I thought, ‘Wow, I am really blessed to be able to hear that,’ ” she said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Archie Ingersoll at (701) 451-5734