New hearing device helps those with single-side deafness

    A Franklin and Marshall College student is one of the first in the region to test a different kind of hearing aid.

    The device, called the SoundBite, is for people with single-side deafness.

    Twenty-two-year-old Rebecca Hicks was born with an underdeveloped right ear and says any social situation with background noise is a challenge.

    “Crowded streets at a restaurant, it’s just never clear what’s going on, when there are other things going on around me,” Hicks said.

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    She walks into a room and immediately jockeys for position to get her hearing ear — the left — lined up just right.

    “It’s awkward, you know. It’s awkward,” Hicks said. “It affects my everyday life in a small way. I’ve gotten used to it. I really have and I’ve done really well. It hasn’t affected me academically.

    “I have been able to lead a pretty normal life, but if there’s something that can help me I want to try it,” she says.

    Teeth, bones conduct vibrations

    The hearing aid has two parts. A behind-the-ear device has a mini microphone that rests in the ear canal of the deaf ear. The second part is a custom-made mouthpiece, similar to a dental retainer.

    The two parts sync up wirelessly, then the in-the-mouth device sends imperceptible vibrations through the teeth and bones to the hearing ear.

    Seems counter-intuitive to send sounds to the ear that already hears, but Paula Marcinkevich, an audiologist at Thomas Jefferson University, says it works.

    “Our nerves actually cross over, so it actually makes our brain think it’s hearing from the bad side,” she said.

    Older, traditional hearing aids amplify sound for an impaired ear. The new prosthetic device often works for people with moderate to profound hearing loss in one ear.

    Hicks has tickets to see the band Train this weekend at the Mann Center and hopes to hear the concert in stereo. “I hope that it will be different and exciting,” she said.

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the SoundBite more than a year ago, but doctors at Jefferson University are the first in the region to offer it to patients.

    Gentler version of old concept

    Sending sound vibrations through bone to assist hearing is a very old concept, but the SoundBite device is an alternative to implants that are anchored directly into the skull.

    “The best part about this is it does not involve surgery,” Marcinkevich said.

    “I was a little nervous about having a screw put in my head,” said Hicks, an avid horseback rider. “And my parents were too.”

    The device, fittings and doctor’s visits can cost $8,000 or more. Experts at Jefferson say it can be a challenge getting insurance companies to pay up

    A representative for the device maker, Sonitus Medical, said his company works with patients to appeal when an insurer denies an initial claim.

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