“It was like someone flipped a switch.” That’s how Alan Holt describes his cochlear implant at St. Paul’s Hospital four years ago.
The retired steam engineer had dealt with progressive hearing loss for close to two decades. Today, he can hear the birds, talk on the phone, and enjoy cafes and activities he had avoided because the background noise made it impossible to have a conversation. Cochlear implants restore hearing by stimulating the auditory nerve that leads to the brain. The one drawback is the need for an annual adjustment, or “mapping” appointment that can only be performed at St. Paul’s, home of BC’s only adult cochlear implant program.
For Alan, who lives on Vancouver Island, the visits were an all-day production. “It’s a hassle to deal with the ferries, the parking, and the mess of driving in downtown Vancouver,” he admits. Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, Holt postponed the appointment altogether.
Partners in virtual care
This past November, Holt was delighted to learn he could do the mapping remotely from Royal Jubilee Hospital, in Victoria, just an hour from his home.
“I went into a little booth, the computer came on, and there was my audiologist from St. Paul’s,” he recalls. “She helped me connect the wires and we did the mapping. It was really good.”
The remote mapping initiative is a partnership between Providence Health Care and Island Health. And it’s just one example of the innovative work coming out of the Rotary Hearing Clinic at St. Paul’s.
“We’ve spent two years on the remote mapping initiative and we’re starting to realize its virtual benefits,” says neurotologist Dr. Jane Lea. “Now that we know it works, we’re anxious to expand across the rest of the province.”
Keeping up with demand
As with so many health-related programs, resources are limited. “We have an active caseload of 900 cochlear implant patients. And the ability to perform only 46 implant surgeries a year,” says St. Paul’s audiologist Jowan Lee. “The wait from your referral to your initial appointment is more than 18 months!”
Tackling that waitlist is one of the many reasons for the new fundraising initiative between St. Paul’s Foundation and the Rotary Club of Vancouver Hearing Foundation. The goal is to fund an expanded Rotary Hearing and Balance Centre at the new St. Paul’s.
“It will be great,” says Lee. “We’ll have more room for booths and test equipment and we’ll be able to help more cochlear patients.” The new Centre will also include research facilities, clinics, labs, exam rooms, surgical suites, and leading-edge equipment to diagnose and treat complex ear, hearing, and balance disorders.
“Not only will we have advanced testing and treatment options, we’ll be able to stream patients into research projects and clinical trials,” says Dr. Brian Westerberg, head of otolaryngology at St. Paul’s Hospital.
Bringing back the sounds of life
More than one million Canadians report some kind of hearing loss. It can cause social isolation, depression, and safety concerns. Without treatment, hearing loss can also lead to accelerated cognitive decline. Because these factors are so closely linked to aging, we are all at risk.
Dr. Lea doesn’t mince words. “Hearing loss can be isolating and traumatic and it can even lead to suicidal ideation.” At the new Centre, Dr. Lea notes that care will focus around multidisciplinary teams. “I hope this will include social workers and psychiatrists,” she says.
For Alan Holt, hearing loss had even affected his physical health. He couldn’t hear approaching vehicles, so he stopped cycling and walking along the rural roads of his neighborhood. “What the implant has done for me has been absolutely awesome,” he beams. “I can hear the radio. I can hear the television. I can hear nature.”
Article by Jessica Werb and Kris Wallace | Photography by Jeff Topham And Lauren Noel, Island Health
To ensure the new Centre is fully equipped from day one, it will be funded by the Rotary Club of Vancouver Hearing Foundation and St. Paul’s Foundation, with each organization committing to raise $6 million. You can help us get there. Give today at helpstpauls.com/nsp-rotary and help bring back the sounds of life.