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Philip Zimmer: It's a miracle this can happen

Philip Zimmer is thinking about getting machinery ready for spring’s work on the farm, but there’s something a little more important that he has to do first.

3/24/15 (Tue)

Turning on the hearing again... Philip Zimmer displays two cochlear implants that he received at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. The implants will him balanced hearing after many years of deteriorating hearing. His right ear was fitted in 2012 and his left ear implant was put in place Feb. 26 and switched on March 16.

By Marvin Baker

Philip Zimmer is thinking about getting machinery ready for spring’s work on the farm, but there’s something a little more important that he has to do first.

He looks forward to stepping outside his house north of Norma and listening; listening to the birds chirping, the geese honking and the wind blowing.

Over the years Zimmer’s hearing has gradually deteriorated until there was hardly anything left.

But thanks to cochlear implant technology and the Mayo Clinic, he once again has good hearing in both ears.

On Feb. 26 Zimmer had surgery in St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester to implant a cochlear device in his left ear. The device was switched on March 16.

“It’s a blessing this can happen,” he said. “Right now I feel extremely lucky with this technology being here and things working.”

A cochlear implant is a device that appears similar, but is much more complex than a hearing aid. An electrode is inserted into the cochlea of the ear through an insertion and is connected to a microphone, processor and transmitter coil that allows the individual to hear electronically.

“I am now in bionic mode,” Zimmer said. “I feel lucky at 63 years old to have a second chance.”

The device wasn’t turned on immediately after surgery to allow the healing process to take place. When it was realized there wouldn’t be any major complications other than a bit of swelling from the incision, the device was turned on and slowly adjusted, according to Zimmer.

That was done in Minot and the way he described it, a number of sensors along the implanted electrode are individually turned on and adjusted one by one, very similar to adjusting the various frequencies of sound on a home theater system with an equalizer.

In 2012, Zimmer had the same procedure done in his right ear. He admitted euphoria when that device was first turned on because he didn’t know what to expect.

And when that first implant was turned on, Zimmer was first shocked, then happy, then amazed.

“The left side was very similar but the emotion was so much greater then because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Zimmer said. “This wasn’t the WOW it was then, but it’s great to hear the birds singing. It’s just great!”

Good hearing has returned, according to Zimmer, but it remains to be seen if it will be perfect. Theoretically, it should be as good as perfect, however, as in any surgery, that’s not a guarantee.

There’s also the change in Zimmer’s balance. As his hearing slowly faltered in the past 20 to 30 years, his body gradually compensated for the greater loss of hearing and balance on one side than the other.

But now that partial hearing has returned to his left ear, he will have to adjust to that change in equilibrium once again.

“With the second one, the best way I can describe it is a teeter totter,” Zimmer said. “The right side has done all the work. There was 38 percent hearing in my left ear with a hearing aid.”

 “I know something is going on,” he continued as he pointed to his left ear. “I know I’ll have balance on both sides. I can feel that now.”

Now that the surgery is past and his left ear is capable of hearing sounds, audiologists will gradually increase the percentage of hearing in his left ear so there is no discomfort.

Zimmer said he has a series of appointments throughout the summer and each time the change will be more aggressive with respect to loudness and eventually his hearing will equal out, which in turn will equal his balance.

“Six months ago I turned my head to hear something,” Zimmer said. “Maybe this isn’t a 100 percent cure, but to go from 38 percent to where I am now, this wouldn’t be possible without this technology.”

Zimmer hunted a lot when he was younger and the firing of weapons may have affected his hearing. There was also noise from farm machinery, and oil rigs, where he once worked and his mother had poor hearing so heredity played a part in his hearing difficulty.

He admits, the technology isn’t for everyone, but since it’s availability, it has the potential to help scores of people.

“Not everyone is a candidate for a cochlear implant. The nerve endings have to be up and running to make this happen,” Zimmer said. “But for young people having trouble with this, what a blessing.”

And in Zimmer’s opinion, this transition may be easier for children with hearing issues because  they are just learning about hearing and balance, while an adult, who has already completely developed, has to re-learn hearing and balance, which takes more time and perhaps more effort.

Zimmer said he doesn’t feel any pain from the surgery or the implant. He removes both implants when he goes to bed and jokes that if you really want to know what quiet is, without the implants nothing is heard.

“This is all good but it comes at a price in insurance costs,” Zimmer said. “But Philip Zimmer needs this so it is covered, end of discussion.”

He considers himself lucky that insurance is on board but despite that, there have been numerous 800-mile road trips to Rochester, there’s hotel bills and food while there. The driving time can be a hassle too, but he’s been advised not to fly because of the sensitivity of his ears. It becomes expensive and time consuming, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Technically, he has a Cochlear Nucleus 6 which his health insurance considers a necessity. He cautioned that some insurance companies won’t cover cochlear implants so if someone else is thinking about it, they should contact their insurance company before proceeding.

Believe it or not, Zimmer has remote control that can adjust the volume of what he is hearing. He doesn’t mess around with it too much and prefers to leave the volume increases to the professionals.

The remote can, however, be used to control loud noises, which he will surely encounter, especially now that spring’s work is right around the corner.

“My biggest challenge will be in the church crowd or during a basketball game,” he said. “The perfect environment for me is sitting here at the table and talking. But doubling 38 percent, what more could I want. Without this, family functions would be much more difficult.”

He said the grandchildren know there’s something there but don’t totally understand what it is or how it works.

“But for me, I wouldn’t be able to laugh at some of the things they say,” Zimmer said. “I’d miss those special moments.”

He added that if and when he is in a crowd and someone addresses him, he may not hear that person very well because the noise of the crowd could overpower a single voice.

There’s also the challenge of maintenance. Just like a combine, just like changing oil in a car, or like upgrading a computer, there’s maintenance.

In fact, Zimmer has a “suitcase” of accessories for each ear and two batteries for each side.

“It’s like anything else, you have to take care of it,” he said. “I have to keep it clean and I have to be careful with farm dust. I have to take the time to clean it.”

Not only has Zimmer been amazed at his new gift of hearing, but also in how Mayo Clinic operates.

Calling it a world-class facility, he said it is so organized, schedules are spot on and ironically, the surgery was done in the same room in St. Mary’s Hospital as he was in when he had his first surgery in 2012.

He said it’s a real eye opener that included having the same doctor as in 2012.

Zimmer said he would recommend cochlear implants to anyone who might be a candidate for the surgery.

He said there are so many worse situations one could be involved in, but when you can’t communicate, it’s nasty.

“How that thing works is beyond me,” Zimmer said. “But that’s the best thing I have ever done in my life, by far.” ... Read EVERY WORD on EVERY PAGE of The Kenmare News by subscribing--online or in print!