Procedure improved local teen’s hearing ability

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By John Barnhart

Abigail Brewer, who lives in Goode, is a 19-year-old sophomore at Liberty University (LU).

     She’s a Liberty Christian Academy graduate who, thanks to some college credit she picked up in high school, was able to start at LU with advanced status.
    Brewer is working on a degree to teach English as a second language.
    Why did she choose that course of study?
    “I tutored elementary international students as a senior in high school,” she said.
    During that time she saw a transformation in a student. The child went from not enjoying reading to being excited about it. It was a great experience for her to watch this transformation happen.
    “It is just so exciting to watch kids learn and I want to be a part of that,” Brewer said.
    She had another exciting experience when she was 14. Thanks to a Cochlear Americas Baha System implant, a whole new world of sound opened up for her.
    Brewer was born without a right ear. The ear just didn’t develop.
    “I have a working inner ear,” she said.
    The problem is that the outer and middle ear didn’t form. The outer ear gathers sound and the middle ear delivers the sound to the inner ear which turns the sound to nerve impulses which go to the brain. Baha stands for Bone Anchored Hearing Aid and depends on the patient having a working inner ear.

    Bone anchored means that the hearing aid is connected to a titanium implant that is implanted directly into the skull behind the ear. Titanium is used because bone likes to grow on that metal. Brewer said the success of dental implants, which also use titanium, is what gave rise to the idea of a bone anchored hearing aid.
    The sound processor portion of the system snaps onto an attachment.
    “It’s as simple as snapping your pants,” Brewer said of attaching the processor.
    The processor and implant do the work that her outer and middle ear would have done if they had formed. The processor gathers the sound vibrations and the implant transfers these vibrations to her inner ear, via vibrations in the bone of her skull, doing the job her middle ear would have done. Her inner ear then does what it’s designed to do.
    Brewer got the implant when she was 14 and the fact that she would soon be driving was the impetus for that decision. She wanted to be able to hear her friends and family when she was driving.
    “You can’t exactly turn your head while you are driving,” she said.
    Brewer had coped with her missing ear by making sure people were to the left of her. She was also good when she could look people directly in the face.
    “It’s a very simple procedure,” Brewer said of getting the implant.
    Once it was healed she connected the processor to it in her audiologist’s office. She described the difference as going from a TV without surround sound to turning on the surround sound on a TV that has that feature.
    Afterwards, she went to a restaurant with her family and was amazed at the things she could hear that she had been missing. She could hear conversations at other tables. She could hear footsteps in the hall.
    “This is so cool!” she recalled thinking.
    She was especially fascinated by the sound a plastic bag made.
    “I had never thought what a plastic bag sounded like — when you crinkle it up,” she said. “That just blew my mind.”
    The implant opened up a whole new world of sound for her.
    It also improved her directional sense of sound. Previously, when she only had a functioning left ear, she was aware of sounds coming from the right because she could hear them through her left ear, but she only could deduce that sound was coming from the right because she could tell it was not on her left. With the implant, she can hear these sounds directly.
    This month, Brewer received the 2017 Anders Tjellström Scholarship. It’s named after Dr. Anders Tjellström, the Swedish research physician who collaborated with Dr. Per-Ingvar Brånemarkt to treat the first patient with a Baha  device. Candidates for this year’s scholarship had to have graduated from high school in 2016 who are pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree in the current school year at an accredited college or university. They also have a Baha device. The scholarship pays $2,000 per year for up to four years.
    Brewer is excited about her course of study and her choice of universities.
    “I love Liberty,” she said. “It’s a great place to come for college.”
    While her immediate goal is to teach English as a second language, she has future educational goals in mind. She may work on a master’s degree in education and possibly, a PhD in applied linguistics. She said that people working in that field figure out how we do what we do when we apply or learn a language.
    Brewer comes from a highly educated family. Her father is associate dean of research at LU’s college of medicine.