Opening up a world of rehabilitation

New hearing aid service at the Miller Speech & Hearing Clinic provides service to community while giving students more knowledge of technology in the field.

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by Rick Waters '95
Updated: Monday, February 09, 2015

Provost Nowell Donovan, graduate student Lauren Cunningham ’12 and clinical audiologist Tracy Berger discuss Donovan's new hearing aid, the first dispensed at the Miller Speech & Hearing Clinic. (Photography by Glen E. Ellman)

More than a year ago, Nowell Donovan detected something wasn’t right. Students in his geology courses could hear him. They answered questions and conversed amongst themselves about diagram slides and lecture points.

But too frequently, the professor and university provost couldn’t quite pick up the other side of the discussion. To compensate, Donovan walked the classroom, leading with his left ear, turning to the sounds on his “good hearing” side. Still, noises were muffled and voices fainter, even from the eager beavers sitting on the front row. For those near the back, he heard almost nothing.

“It’s awkward to be in class and not hear precisely,” Donovan said.

Finally, a frustrated Donovan made an appointment with TCU’s Miller Speech and Hearing Clinic. Clinical audiologist Tracy Berger and graduate students in the Davies School of Communication Sciences and Disorders evaluated both ears and confirmed what he had suspected for a long while – he needed hearing aids.

Hearing in Donovan’s left ear had degenerated naturally with age. His right ear had more significant loss from a soccer injury nearly 50 years ago. Hearing in both would only get worse. But in 2013, the clinic’s services stopped after a diagnosis.

Since opening on the corner of Cantey and Stadium drives in 1976, the Miller Speech and Hearing Clinic has been a learning lab for TCU students and research facility for faculty. Undergraduate and graduate students used their speech pathology and deaf education coursework knowledge and skills to assess clients’ impairments and offer some treatment, but they could not offer complete rehabilitation.

“We could talk about hearing loss with the client and give them coping strategies before getting a hearing aid,” said Berger. “We could talk about the technology available, so they would be informed consumers, but they would have to go somewhere else [for hearing aids]. That was the end of the road.”

Donovan wanted to get his hearing aids from TCU and set about helping the clinic that had helped him.  

In 2014, a $5 million gift from Marilyn Davies, parent of deaf education alumna Morgan Davies ’12, established a permanent endowment for the school, which has expanded its graduate student workroom and provided more operational support, including hearing aid services.

Photo In October, Donovan became the clinic’s first client – or test case – for a hearing-aid fitting. Huddled knee to knee in an audiology testing room, Berger and second-year graduate student Lauren Cunningham ’12 placed the Phonak Bolero Q90 into Donovan’s hand. The black device with clear tubing scarcely covered a third of his palm.

“It’s quite smaller than I expected. The technology is spectacular and these things are getting vanishingly small,” the provost said. “The stigma is disappearing, I hope. More people need to do this.”

After Berger fitted the hearing aid in his ear, Donovan’s eyes brightened. For an hour, the trio tweaked volume controls, placed and replaced batteries and formed a checklist of maintenance tasks. Donovan was an eager student.

“First thing I noticed, I can hear a richness of sound I couldn’t hear before,” Donovan said. “It’s interesting to hear voices so clearly again. I hear my own voice a little differently.”

“Your brain has not heard those sounds in a long time,” Berger explained. “It’s waking up.”

The pilot program is available to members of the TCU campus community, current and retired, TCU alumni and the Fort Worth public. The clinic typically sees patients ranging from pre-school to the elderly.

“We’re excited now to be able to help people have access to sounds, so they’ll hear their families better,” Berger said.

Photo The new hearing aid service broadens the education students receive through the clinic, said Chris Watts, clinic director and professor of communication sciences and disorders.  “What we are doing now, we will be a full-service hearing clinic.”

“By adding fitting and dispensing services, our students will see the whole range of hearing rehabilitation,” Watts said. “They can experience being involved in diagnosis and selection of appropriate technology and then be involved in the follow-up to determine how effective the technology is for clients. We feel this will be a much more rounded educational experience for our students.”

Watts said gaining familiarity with the technology and terminology alone will better prepared TCU speech-language pathology students for the workforce. “By increasing exposure to hearing technologies and hearing impaired populations while they’re still in graduate school, we’re going to better prepare them to work with these populations when they graduate and start their careers.”

Before, said Berger, students only saw hearing loss. “They didn’t see clients a second time to see the next step in oral rehabilitation, and that’s the technology, the fitting the device on the client’s ear and fine-tuning it,” she said. “It bridges the audiology with the rehabilitation.”

Cunningham said speech therapists benefit from this full-spectrum understanding. “We’re the ones that will have weekly contact with families. “We’re the ones who will hear a majority of the questions before the audiologist will, so having the information will make us better clinicians and ultimately help the families.”

“A lot of graduate schools don’t offer this kind of opportunity,” said Cunningham who is expected to graduate with a master’s in Speech-Language Pathology in May. “I feel like having the speech and language side is one thing as a career. But then, getting the experience of working with the hearing-impaired population, that will give me an extra skill set for when I do enter the field.”


On the Web:
Miller Speech & Hearing Clinic
Davies School of Communication Sciences & Disorders
Harris College of Nursing & Health Sciences

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