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Now hear this: Device promising

| Tuesday, May 22, 2012, 6:34 p.m.
A model of Getsy's new hearing aid, the SoundBite Hearing System, shows the device that is worn in the mouth and sends vibrations to the inner ear. Patients must have good teeth to use it. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Paul Getsy regained hearing in his right ear after four years without because of a transmitter fitted inside his mouth. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Paul Getsy suddenly and inexplicably lost hearing in his right ear about four years ago.

Straining to compensate, he often asked his wife to repeat herself.

In December, an audiologist fitted Getsy, 48, of Plum with a device that uses a transmitter worn in the mouth to vibrate the inner ear and restore hearing.

"The audiologist whispered in my ear, and I remember the hair on my neck standing up and I said, 'Oh my God, I heard that,' " Getsy said. "I didn't expect it to work the second she put it on, and it did."

Allegheny General Hospital hearing specialists on Tuesday showed off the SoundBite, which received federal approval in January 2011. Patients began using it in October. Getsy is one of three AGH patients with the device.

More than 200 people across the country use the device, including patients at the Cleveland Clinic.

Dr. Todd Hillman, co-director of the Hearing and Balance Center at AGH, said it could help thousands of people in Western Pennsylvania, though candidates must have hearing loss only in one ear.

They also must have good teeth. Patients wear a microphone behind the bad ear, which transmits signals to a device attached to two molars that sends the vibrations to the bad ear.

"Although this doesn't solve all the problems of unilateral hearing loss, it does help quite a bit," Hillman said.

No surgery is needed, although as an alternative, doctors could surgically install a device under the skin.

Traditional hearing aids didn't help Getsy, director of product development for sleep services at Philips Home Healthcare Solutions in Monroeville. He said they increased the volume of sound, but words sounded muffled, likening them to the "wah-wah" sounds of Charlie Brown's teacher in television cartoons.

Within a week of using the device, Getsy said he could eat normally with it. He doesn't feel any vibration in his head, or get feedback that some people who wear hearing aids complain about.

"Other than the cost, there's no downside to it," Getsy said.

Hillman said it costs about $6,800, which some insurance companies only partially cover.

Mark Spradley, a board member of the Hearing Loss Association of America in Washington, lost hearing in his right ear because of a tumor in June 2010 and began using SoundBite about 18 months later.

"I did not realize how important it was until I spent 18 months not being able to hear," Spradley said. "Fortunately it was a fast solution. Not only can I hear, it's like symphonic sound."

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