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Gifted High School Musician Loses Hearing Due to an Ear Infection

Imagine being able to play eleven musical instruments as a high school student one day and none the next. Elisabeth Thorne shares how an ear infection changed the course of her studies and her life.





Hi. I'm Jim Cuddy. And this is Ask The Hearing Doctors. And I'm joined today by Dr. Wendy Thorne doctor of audiology with Hearing Doctors. And also Elisabeth Thorne a patient with Hearing Doctors. The Washington DC area's highest-rated audiology practice with over 1500, five-star reviews. Elisabeth, Wendy great to see you both. You too.


And I should also mention that Elisabeth happens to be the sister-in-law of Dr. Wendy. Welcome, it's great to have you with us. Thank you.


You wear hearing aids, you're here to tell us your story today. Take us back to the beginning, when did you realize that you first had a hearing problem?


Well, mine was a little different than most people. Um, I had kind of a dramatic change. I got an ear infection just like anybody else. It was the first one I'd ever had in my life. I was a junior in high school. Um, and I took antibiotics just like I was supposed to. Everything was great and I was at band practice one day. I was playing the trumpet. I was playing Respect, by Aretha Franklin. I had the solo. And I jumped up to this high C and all of a sudden my mouth just like fell out of my mouthpiece. And my band director starts yelling at me and he's like, “what, what are you doing, we have a solo here”. You know all this different stuff and I was like D. I can't, I can't feel my face. 


And so I went paralyzed from here over and it was like the whole left side of my face. They took me to the doctor and they they didn't exactly know what was going on. Well, my Mom called my ear doctor, that I had at the time because I'd had my tonsils and adenoids out and all that stuff, and and rushed me up there. And he got me in immediately and and that's when we realized there was a problem. 


Wow, so I mean I I can't imagine the things that must've been going on through your head. When all I mean you're a junior in high school? Yeah, I mean that's just not obviously, that's not normal. No, but the association with hearing when you have something like this, Wendy I mean is that is that a common occurrence?


It's not a common thing. Um, but sometimes ear infections can be so significant that you know it can cause your eardrum to burst, it can affect the middle ear bones, it can affect your nerves. Um, and the longer it kind of goes without any treatment and she had no symptoms at all. Um, that it can really start to kind of grow and spread. And it can, you know definitely cause some pretty serious issues if you wait too long.


So, so the initial diagnosis is ear infection. They know that it's an ear infection, you start taking the antibiotics. Yeah. And you improve? Uh, the pain went away, I thought everything was fine. 


What about the facial, uh were you able to get the feeling back in your face? Are we able to, did that all come back as the the Infection abated or?


Well, I ended up having several surgeries. I was on IV antibiotics for on and off for three months. My doctor, Dr. Stern was absolutely incredible. He kept me close by his office, I actually lived close there for a while so I would go in every single day to get antibiotics. And this is still just an ear infection, that's that's what we're treating at this point? Yep. Wow. 


What happens next? So does the ear infection clear up? You all of a sudden get back to where ah I'm finished with that I'm done and now on to on to life I go?


Uh, it took a while. I got 85 percent of my movement back so now most people can't tell that I ever had that paralysis unless I'm really tired than you can kind of tell. And I was able to continue to play music however it wasn't to the quality that I was used to before. And I lost some hearing and I knew that I lost some hearing, um but I was too stubborn to do anything about it for quite some time. So.


So you did recognize that you were missing some things as far as hearing goes?


Absolutely, Yeah. Absolutely.


All right you get, you get to the point where you're 85 percent back as far as the paralysis goes. You do recognize that you've got a hearing issue, you're being stubborn that's you know we we get that. What happens next?


Well um, I went back to music and I continued to try to learn and grow and work through it. I got accepted to a music college and then I continued to get more ear infections because of the damage and stuff. So, I lost a little bit more hearing and I just decided that that wasn't the route for me and I changed my major. I changed to education and I specialized in some special needs which is what I do now. I work with individuals with special needs. And it's extremely fulfilling because I'm able to use the things that I learned to have compassion on the things that they deal with. Because you know, you and I can have a conversation like this just fine but you don't realize that without my hearing aids I'm reading your lips. And there's there's different things that you know we've learned to adapt and grow because of our experiences.


When you mention reading lips, now obviously you have hearing aids now, but you were being stubborn you didn't want to admit to that hearing loss. Did you have to just learn how to read lips on your own? Or did you try and get some sort of schooling in that or how does that work?


Well, I lost all my hearing so quickly when I was in high school that I kind of had to to survive. It was just like immersion into that language of reading lips to survive. You know, that's just how I communicated with other people. And then when COVID came around and everybody felt the need to cover their faces with face masks and stuff, I realized what a predicament I was in and that's when I finally was like okay, Wendy you can help me. That took a long time. It's time to bring in the expert. I just sat patiently and waited for her to to be ready.


You knew all of this was going on but at the same time you have to be respectful of Elisabeth and her where she stands with with things I guess?


Yeah, yeah and I knew that that hearing aids were something that I would help her with down the road but I wanted her to be emotionally ready. Because it is a big difference. It's definitely a life-changing experience. In my mind a very, very positive one but most people don't know that. Especially being young it can be very difficult emotionally to kind of accept that and get to that point.


We've talked about this in the past where people don't want to go. They don't want to admit, oh my god. I don't like wearing glasses I hate to admit that my eyes are going. But obviously it happens. Your situation is a little more unique in that you had these issues that it wasn't, it's not a misdiagnosis here though right? I mean were things diagnosed properly but its just the ear infection was just too great?


I think so, yeah, and so it's you know I think it probably was kind of like a silent ear infection at the beginning where it was so significant but no symptoms. So, she wasn't feeling like she wasn't having the pain, the fullness in her ear, and that allowed the infection to grow to the point where it really started to cause more permanent issues.


So COVID-19 hits. Yeah. You finally said enough's enough. I'm calling my sister-in-law we're going to get this thing taken care of? Yeah. 


So now let's talk about the positive side of this right. Because obviously you've been through this traumatic experience of your life that you've been nice enough to share with us. Let's talk about the positive side of it. You know once once you made that call to Wendy...Help, I Need Help, how'd that go?


Well, um my brother responded with it's about time because my brother's been after me for years - “just let her help you” and I wouldn't. Um, but I was at this restaurant and I was trying to order my food and the the server was talking to me. And they could have been trying to sell me a mortgage, I don't know, I had no idea what was going on. And that's when I realized that I really needed some help and so I called her and I was like okay, I think it's time. I think I need these now because I could not communicate. 


And so since then it has been incredible. And I'll be honest with you the first couple days were not so great. Tell us about that. They are overwhelming at first. Now she had, she had warned me that noises were going to be a little noisier um for lack of a better better term but um it was overwhelming. On on our way home I I kind of wanted to punch my husband because I'm pretty sure he was making every noise he possibly could on purpose. He was definitely doing it on purpose. It was insane. But seriously, when you turn on a light, it clicks, it makes a noise and I didn't realize that. And there was just so many insignificant little things that when I put on my hearing aids I I rediscovered, I relearned. It was it was incredible.


Initially that sounds like that was difficult those first few days. Yes. But afterwards, that must have been absolute delight?


Yeah. Yeah. Once I was able to kind of there was times I would have to take them off. There was times I would have to go okay that's enough, that's enough for right now. Your husband was talking again? Exactly. Yeah, I get that at home. Or Wendy was opening a chip bag. I'm like opening and she's like aah. I'm like give it time, give it time. It will get better.


And I was so upset on the way home because I was like oh I don't know if it's gonna work for me. This is too loud, I don't want to upset Wendy. And that was my biggest concern but I pushed through and and little by little I was able to start tuning out the stuff that didn't make any difference. You know tuning out the stuff that that you and I now wouldn't pay any attention to. And and focus in on the things that I had been missing. I hadn't heard like a springtime frog peep in so long. Oh my goodness. And and just a bird when it flaps by and it's too close you can hear its wings. I hadn't heard any of that and it was eye-opening. I could go into the woods and I could actually hear something as opposed to there's nothing alive out here. Or even the leaves crunching under your feet? Yeah, exactly.


Is this a common occurrence that that first reaction with somebody?


Yeah, so I always whenever I see patients usually the first thing I always say as soon as I turn the hearing aids on I'm like okay it's gonna be a lot. And you know it's gonna take a while. Your voice is going to sound strange. Sounds around you are going to sound strange, but give it time. When you've had hearing loss for a long time your brain is not used to hearing those sounds and so it kind of gets hyper aware where it's like what's that, what's that, what's that.


Is it almost that it's forgotten?


Kind of, yeah. So when you're getting hearing aids we have to kind of go, I always talk about moving in baby steps so we just need to get through small little areas you know slowly turn the hearing aids up over time because it can be a lot. It's a lot. 


So there so there is adjustment then? Absolutely. So you get a new set of hearing aids and obviously there are adjustments with new hearing aids anyway, right? I mean that's pretty common?


Yeah. But for somebody that has had hearing loss for such a long period of time is it do you really try and start on the low end and then gradually move up and just kind of keep them aware as you're as you're going?


Yeah, so i kind of base it patient by patient. So some people I’ll start right where they need it and if i can kind of see their face it's a lot then I'll turn it down. And I always say that's perfectly fine. If we need to start at a lower level I want this to be a semi-comfortable experience at first and then we'll kind of move up as we go along. And that's what I did with Elisabeth. You know we kind of started softer, which most new users like and then over time just bring it up so that it's not so overwhelming. It is overwhelming though it is. Yeah. 


But now your life must be so different. It is. And just I mean it must be an absolute joy the little things when you mention a light switch click or the bird fluttering. Not even the bird chirping but the bird fluttering as it's coming a little too close to your head, for whatever reason. Um, I think these are the things we take for granted. Yeah.


And, um what would you tell somebody that's watching us right now that is kind of on the fence about going to see an audiologist?


t's okay to ask for help and it's okay to not be certain you know. It's okay to walk into a doctor's office and not know what you need and not know what you want necessarily. That's that's what the doctor is there to help you with, um, to make those decisions and to make that transition easy for you. 


And then I would challenge a person that's wearing them for the first time to push through. Push through the first month, I would say because it can be overwhelming. At night when you take them off it's like a whole different world. You're like whoa, wow that was a lot.


But I'll bet you sleep really well?


You do!  Right. Because those are the little noises at night are the ones I hear, I don't hear anything all day long you know. It's just kind of like I don't I'm not listening to the light switch and that kind of thing but if I you know I joke about this but it's not a very funny topic. This is a wonderful story and a wonderful outcome and we really appreciate you sharing it with us. 


Thank you for having me. Thank you, Wendy. Thank you. Thanks.


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