Waking up to the sound of coffee

Spring 2019

Imagine waking up not only to smell the coffee but also to hear the water gurgling through the coffee maker for the very first time. To hear people chattering at the mall, to hear the traffic rumbling up the street.

That became a reality for Laura Sitlington a few years ago, one that she was not born with.

“It’s interesting how totally different noise sounds for me now,” says Sitlington. “Never take your hearing for granted.”

Sitlington, 30, was diagnosed with impaired hearing at the age of two. Her mom, Sue, says she wasn’t talking at that age and had chronic ear infections.

Sitlington was born with achondroplasia, a bone growth disorder that causes disproportionate dwarfism and may have contributed to her hearing loss and the severe ear infections she suffers.

After her diagnosis Sitlington began speech therapy and was a determined student, so much so that audiologists couldn’t believe how advanced her level of speech was given her hearing loss.

Determined to hear as well as speak, Sitlington had a number of hearing aids over the years. Because her hearing aids were molded into the ear, she continued to suffer from severe ear infections, and they weren’t a good solution for her.

Sitlington was referred to Dr. Sumit Agrawal, a skull base surgeon in the Department of Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery at LHSC, to see what options were available to her.                                     

Dr. Agrawal and his team were the first in North America to surgically implant the Bonebridge system – a bone conduction hearing device – in 2013. This treatment option for patients with certain hearing impairments includes an implant and an externally-worn audio rocessor that together simulate the natural hearing process.    

“Laura had severe sensorineural hearing loss, but she could not wear hearing aids or receive a cochlear implant due to her anatomy and severe ear infections.  We felt that the Bonebridge implant could be an option, but they are typically only used in patients with a conductive or mixed hearing loss in the moderate range,” says Dr. Agrawal.

“As Laura was not a typical candidate for a Bonebridge implant, we asked Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre for an independent second opinion. They agreed that it was her best option.”

With the Bonebridge implant, surgeons bypass the outer and middle ear, so the device can stimulate the inner ear directly through the bone conduction.

Sitlington received her first implant when she was 26 years old, and she was eligible to have a second implant for her other ear last year.

“Before my hearing improved my eyes were my ears, I would watch people’s body language, read their lips and know most of what they are saying,” says Sitlington. “Now I can also hear the conversation around me and I am able to take a stand and be part of the world.”

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has just approved the Bonebridge implants and many US surgeons are coming to LHSC to learn from the team here. Since the first implant six years ago, innovations with the surgery have helped improve the surgical process for patients.

“We have visiting surgeons from all over the world coming to London to learn about our surgical technique. The new technique has allowed us to do the implants in less than an hour, through a small hidden incision in the hairline,” says Dr. Agrawal.

While teaching and innovation are important pillars at LHSC, it is the care of patients that comes first.

“Treating hearing loss has been the most fulfilling part of my job.  We have such a great group of patients, and you can have a tremendous effect on their quality of life,” says Dr. Agrawal.

Sitlington agrees. “The care is amazing and I really enjoy coming to see Dr. Agrawal. He says I’m his favourite patient.”

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