A Soldier’s fight to regain the gift of hearing
He grew up surrounded by the Greatest Generation, those who had served in World War II, which fueled his desire to become a Soldier. His dream was realized in 1983, when he was commissioned from the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
As a combat engineer, Joseph Schweitzer, who would go on to serve 23 years in the Army, recalls that his hearing was perfect when he entered active duty. Eventually, that would change.
“I started to notice real hearing loss following Desert Storm, about seven to eight years after my commission,” recalled Schweitzer.
A few years later, while serving in combat during the early 1990s, he experienced very loud explosions and completely lost his hearing for a few days. “After the hearing initially recovered, though, through the mid-nineties my hearing continued to degrade,” said Schweitzer.
During peacetime operations and when training with weapons and on demolition ranges, Schweitzer said he wore hearing protection, primarily the “rubber plunger” type that came in various colors associated with their size. However, in combat, he recalled, “I could not wear hearing protection while working radios and to hear the sounds of combat, so typically was exposed to severe noise in combat.”
When he was a major at Fort Bragg, Schweitzer got a “2” for hearing on his Physical Profile Serial System (PULHES), a rating system that describes physical readiness. “In the peacetime Army, it was always thought that it would be a kiss of death if you got anything less than perfect, a 1, picket fences across all six categories.”
Nevertheless, Schweitzer was determined to persevere despite his hearing loss.
“I went in to see the audiologist at Fort Bragg and was told that I had some hearing loss, pretty typical for someone of my age and occupation as a combat engineer. The audiologist recommended that I follow up and get hearing aids but it took me several years before I did so. During the mid-nineties, I could get by without the aid of any devices.”
As the 1990s passed and a new millennium began, his hearing continued to degrade. “I would later learn that my hearing loss was mostly a result of otosclerosis, a plaque-like build-up or stiffening around the ear drum and hearing bones in the ear,” said Schweitzer.
In 2003, with continuing hearing loss, he arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for his first appointment with audiologist Dr. Holly Burrows.
“By this time, I was having significant problems hearing conversation out of both ears. I could no longer get by if I wanted to remain engaged with my profession, my personal life. My hearing was degraded so badly out of both ears that I could only really hear with the aid of devices.”
Dr. Burrows fitted Schweitzer with two hearing aids, which improved his ability to hear in certain environments, but he still had difficulty outdoors. He was referred to an otolaryngologist for a surgical consult. A month or so later, he had stapes surgery performed in his left ear, but it failed. He lost all of the hearing in his left ear and became entirely reliant on his right ear.
“Working with Dr. Burrows, we attempted to get as much hearing out of my right ear as possible. She fitted me for my first outer ear hearing aid. I believe I have gone through three or four upgrades since the first one but it provided me with a significant boost in my ability to hear.”
In 2004, Schweitzer deployed first to Afghanistan and then to Iraq. Before he deployed, Dr. Burrows equipped him with spare hearing aids, a maintenance kit, plenty of batteries, and just about everything he would need to cover his hearing needs while downrange.
“Unfortunately, there was no hearing device that would allow me to do the things required from a Soldier in combat. I had to carefully manage my environment if I wanted to be able to converse, hear sounds, receive reports, give direction, and operate in a crisis. You cannot carefully manage your surroundings, the weather, in any field environment, let alone combat.”
His inability to hear or localize the direction of sound was a wake-up call for Schweitzer.
“Like any other good Soldier, when there is combat, you want to move toward the sound of the guns and help carry the load for our nation. It was clear that I could no longer do so. It was clear that I was combat-ineffective and this crushed my soul.”
In 2005, Schweitzer returned stateside to take brigade command. He continued to work with Dr. Burrows to find ways to recover his hearing through the aid of technologies and devices. “Hearing loss in my one good ear had progressed to such an extent that even the best outer ear hearing aid did not produce enough sound for me to hear sufficiently even while in an office environment.”
When Schweitzer retired from the Army in 2006, Dr. Burrows introduced him to another technology called a bone-anchored hearing device, known as a BAHA. An otolaryngologist completed the surgical procedure in Baltimore and within 90 days of the surgery, Schweitzer had significant hearing improvement. “The vibration resonated about my entire skull and fed sound into my inner ear on my right side. I knew then that the rigors of surgery would be worth it.”
Although the BAHA provided a significant improvement over the in-the-ear hearing aid, it too was limited. “The BAHA still could not be worn in a wet environment like the rain, it still rendered me deaf in the outdoors on a windy day, and I could not wear any kind of a hat, helmet, or headgear with the device given where it sat on my skull,” he said.
After retiring from the Army, Schweitzer started a company that builds U.S. embassies, which required him to spend a lot of time in the field. He was at a point in his life where his ability to hear rested entirely on the function of artificial devices. These devices did not function well, or sometimes did not function at all, in the environments where he most needed or wanted to operate.
“My world was shrinking. For me, there were episodes of depression. It was pretty easy to isolate myself from the rest of the world, disengage. All I had to do was turn off my devices. It was easy to let time lapse between audiology appointments,” he said.
But under Dr. Burrow’s care, tuning out wasn’t possible. “Dr. Burrows continued to reach across this self-imposed barrier and push me forward to remain engaged in life.”
After nine years of care, Dr. Burrows referred Schweitzer to audiologist Dr. Gerry Schuchman, and neurotologist Dr. Arnie Rivera, an expert in cochlear implants. In August 2012, cochlear implant surgery was performed on Schweitzer’s left ear. “I was able to recognize words, the difference between a male and female voice—all of this in about one hour’s time of activation of the implant. It was truly remarkable and still remains a significant moment in my life.”
The success of the cochlear implant allowed Schweitzer to get the stapes surgery performed in his right ear, which had been postponed after the failed surgery in his left ear 10 years earlier. The risk of operating on his only hearing ear was significant. With a successful implant surgery on the dead side, the risk was less critical. The stapes surgery on his right ear was successful. “I am now able to hear normally out of the one ear, and now free of devices when I want to be.”
Schweitzer attributes his ability to hear to the “world-class” care he received at Walter Reed and to the audiologists who have cared for him for more than a decade.
“It was the audiologist who constantly sought new devices, new surgical techniques, new medicines, new exercises, whatever it took to get me from that first day in March of 2003 stepping into Dr. Burrow’s office through today being able to hear.”
Dr. Burrows considers Schweitzer an American hero, who dedicated himself to serving the country, both in and out of uniform. “Over the years, he has embodied all of the reasons why I chose this profession,” said Burrows.
Through his experience, Schweitzer came to realize how fragile and important his hearing is. He fought hard for many years to regain it.
His advice draws from that experience. “Protect your hearing, as you will not know how precious it is until you are without it.”
For more about Department of Defense hearing health programs, visit the HCE website.
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