Cochlear Implants: Severe Hearing Loss Couldn't Silence This Singer

October 11, 2013

Music is embedded in Anne Walker’s DNA.

Influenced at a young age by her choral director father, Anne has embraced music since. She’s earned undergraduate and advanced degrees in music. She’s performed nationwide as an opera singer. And she’s taught voice to kids, college students, and other professionals.

But in 2003, when she was 29, the music literally began to fade for her. Anne’s hearing loss started out faint— voices on TV seemed mumbled, the timer on the stove was difficult to hear.

Hearing aids helped for awhile. But during the next five years, Anne’s problem crescendoed into her not being able to understand conversations or discern certain musical notes. She struggled with pieces that she’d sung for years.

Anxiety took its toll as she concealed her hearing loss from colleagues. Am I singing the right note? Was that pitch correct? Can anyone tell I can’t hear?

“It was terrifying because I was a professional, but I couldn’t control the product,” she recalled. “I lived in fear of being found out and losing music, which was my whole life.”

Off key

As she zigzagged the country with various opera companies, Anne quietly consulted audiologists.

“Most looked at me with pity and said they were shocked at how well I functioned given my profession,” she said. “My biggest frustration was no one offered help.”

So she turned to what she knew best: music. Anne retrained her brain to transpose pitches. When she heard a flat note, it was actually correct; a “normal” note was actually sharp.

Although this solution helped Anne cope, it also wore her down.

“After a three-hour rehearsal, I was completely exhausted from constantly filtering what I heard,” she said. “There were times when I was literally ill the next day.”

By 2008, Anne had given up opera and settled down teaching private voice lessons from her Overland Park, Kan., home studio where she could control the acoustics. Over the next four years, the once vibrant performer faded along with her hearing. Everyday activities—going through a drive-thru or calling customer service—were becoming impossible. And carrying on conversations socially was too stressful.

“Losing my hearing was paralyzing, and I went into hiding,” said Anne. “I became someone else.

”But in January 2012, a referral to Saint Luke’s Hospital Midwest Ear Institute changed Anne’s life.

A trained ear

Saint Luke’s Hospital Midwest Ear Institute can often help people even when they’ve been told there is none. Luckily for Anne, it’s the region’s most experienced cochlear implant program.

Unlike hearing aids, which amplify sounds that hit the eardrum, a cochlear implant stimulates the auditory nerve leading to the brain. This helps people with severe hearing loss, like Anne, hear again.

“Going to Midwest Ear Institute was so empowering,” recalled Anne. “I finally felt like someone got it. They understood how much I struggled in my daily life.

”Tests showed Anne’s speech recognition could jump from 20 to 90 percent with an implant. However, she risked fully recovering an accurate sense of pitch.

After weighing the risks and benefits, Anne received a cochlear implant in May. But her challenge was just beginning.

Strike a chord

Mastering music can take months—even years—for cochlear implant patients. Anne was prepared, though, and relied on her formal training.

Repetition was key. She listened to pieces that she’d sung for years, focusing on one pitch. She zeroed in on a favorite orchestral composition’s bass line, building chords around it. And she played scales over and over.

“I realized that it’s a brain thing, not an ear thing,” explained Anne. “Every time I improved on something, pathways to my brain opened and I heard more sound.

”Within three months, she had retrained her brain.

She resumed teaching private voice lessons in July. She began teaching at Avila University in August. And she had her first recital in December.

“What I feared I would lose is what saved me,” she said. “Had I not had formal music training, I wouldn’t have known how to train my ears.”

Today, music continues to take center stage in the 39-year-old’s life. She’s teaching privately and at Avila, directing a choir, overseeing youth and children’s music at a local church, and singing.

“I got my life back,” said Anne, “and I feel like I can breathe again and be myself.”

Learn more about Midwest Ear Institute.