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Cochlear implant to Pakistani man is area’s first for patient with ‘single-sided deafness’

On an otherwise uneventful night in his home in Pakistan, Fahed Khan awoke to a medical crisis that proved so serious it propelled him on a trip all the way to Memphis.

“I went to sleep around 10 o’clock and at about 12 o’clock I woke up with noise in my ear and a feeling of pressure,” the 43-year-old Khan recalls.

More importantly, all hearing in that right ear was gone.

The affliction suffered by Khan is known as single-sided, or unilateral deafness — the complete loss of hearing in one ear, coupled with tinnitus, while the other functions normally. In cases such as his, doctors presume the cause is a virus, although they aren’t certain.

In the past, patients with the condition had little hope of improvement. The most effective operation to treat hearing loss — a cochlear implant, involving the insertion of electrodes and other electronic equipment in the ear to provide hearing — generally has been available only to patients deaf in both ears.

But last month, Khan received a cochlear implant at the Shea Clinic Ear Nose & Throat in East Memphis. He’s now undergoing a gradual adjustment and healing process that should result in a return to near-normal hearing.

Although it’s far more available in Europe, the procedure was one of “only a handful” of implants that have been given in the U.S. to patients with single-sidened deafness, said Dr. Paul Shea, neurotologist and third-generation staffer at the clinic bearing his family’s name.

There are a few main reasons why patients with the condition haven’t been able to receive the implants, Shea said. One was the perception that single-sided deaf people weren’t nearly as bad off as those deaf in both ears.

“Any hearing is better than no hearing,” Shea said.

Also, the quality of hearing provided by a cochlear implant has been so much different from natural hearing that doctors feared it would prove distracting or confusing to patients with one good ear.

Technical improvements have changed all that.

“As the technology has improved, cochlear implants have only gotten better,” Shea said. “Now, they have really evolved to where the hearing is said to be close to natural hearing.”

For Khan, who experienced the hearing loss last November, the advances came just in time. A banker in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, he could hear fairly well when just one person was speaking. But meetings and conferences presented problems.

“When there are multiple speakers in different directions, I would really struggle to hear,” he said during a recent visit to the Shea clinic.

In contrast to Germany, where the government pays for the procedure, the implants for single-sided deafness still are not covered by insurance in the U.S., meaning that Khan had to pay the $30,000 cost out of pocket.

©2014 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)
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