May 26, 2010

Jim Atwater will tell you that it’s nearly impossible to learn to play music when you can’t hear.

Born with progressive hearing loss that eventually rendered him nearly deaf, the 39-year-old entrepreneur from Leawood, Kansas, first attempted the guitar back in college. While many musicians learn their craft by listening to favorite songs and then replicating what they hear, Atwater instead mimicked his instructor’s hand movements—with no success. Frustrated, he gave up.

Jump forward 15-plus years, and Atwater is finally succeeding with the guitar. And he has Saint Luke’s Hospital Midwest Ear Institute to thank.

This past January, Atwater received an upgraded cochlear implant that now enables him to hear on 120 channels rather than the 16 he was previously using. This includes musical notes.

A cochlear implant is a surgically implanted electronic device that provides a sense of sound to a person who’s profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing. It consists of an external processor and microphone that rests behind the ear and communicates with an internal device that’s placed under the skin and has an electrode array that’s inserted into the cochlea in the inner ear. 

Unlike hearing aids, which amplify sound, cochlear implants bypass damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve. The implant generates signals that travel via the auditory nerve to the brain, which recognizes them as sound.

For Atwater, his new implant is a huge improvement from the eight-channel analog implant he received at age 30 in his right ear and the 16-channel implant he received at age 35 in his left ear.

“The old processors would only enable me to hear a single, narrow note, whereas now there’s a lot more emotion, a lot more depth to the sound,” said Atwater. “Of course, it’s all relative, and a person can’t know what they’re missing if they can’t hear it. So it’s a new discovery to know that more exists.”

‘Awful’ noise

Like many cochlear implant patients, Atwater wasn’t thrilled at first.

“It took me five years from the initial implant to even be able to think about listening to music,” he said. “It was just an awful bunch of noise.”

In fact, about 30 percent of patients don’t ever enjoy music because they can’t discern the various notes and sounds and it’s overwhelming. 

“I find it remarkable that Jim can now pick out specific instruments in bands,” said Lisa Cowdrey, Clinical Director for Midwest Ear Institute. “I tell some patients that it may take years to master music.”

New cochlear implant patients may have to undergo a dozen or more rehab sessions to first distinguish basic sounds, multi-syllable words, and different levels of speech before even working up to music.

For example, Cowdrey and her staff of audiologists help patients discriminate vowels by asking them to choose the correct word, “dean” or “dawn,” for this sentence: “Did you see the [blank] today?”

Embracing music

In Atwater’s case, listening to music for hours has helped him “train his brain,” he said. He started with country, because it has fewer, more simple instruments, before working his way up to classical, featuring a full orchestra of instruments.

“It’s a process with a lot of little ‘wow’ moments that get pieced together rather than one big ‘wow’ moment,” Atwater said. “And the process never stops, because the brain never stops developing. I listen to a lot of music. It’s great exercise for my brain.”

Besides listening, he’s also playing music. He took the guitar back up because his son wanted to learn to play. Now father and son practice together, and Atwater has resumed lessons. But this time around, it’s sweet music to his ears.