May 2011

Do you HEAR What i HEAR?

Author: David Tobias | Photographer: John Brackett

It’s insidious, this business of hearing loss. One day you’re sailing along, hanging with Jagger and the fellas, listening to a cranked iPod and belting out each clearly distinguishable lyric.

“You can’t always get what you waa-aaaant,

But if you try sometime

You might find

You get what you neeeeeeed.”

Then, suddenly, at a quieter musical moment, Natalie Merchant and her 10,000 Maniacs make no sense at all:

“Wa-wa-wa waaaa wa…

wa wa waaaa wa wa…

wa waa waaaa…

Jealousy.”

And then your daughters start talking like they have marbles in their mouths. They just won’t enunciate!

Finally, your wife asks you for a dime, and you tell her it’s about a quarter to six. Okay, that last one was an old joke. But the business of hearing loss is far from a joke. In fact, it might be why men are from Mars and women are from Venus. We don’t hear so well here on Mars.

So, what to do? Understanding is a good starting step, and an extremely personable doctor of audiology right here on Hilton Head Island is the perfect person to explain it.

Dr. Michael Szynski, who hails from South Bend, Indiana, but has been here since 2001, will actually take the time to explain hearing loss. He does that with most of his patients, making time to get to know them in order to effectively diagnose and determine a proper plan of action to help.

For anyone who is experiencing difficulty hearing, the signs really are quite obvious. A constant ringing in the ears is probably not just residual pitch from last night’s concert. If you’re middle-aged, it’s likely that you’re among the 50 million Americans who are diagnosed with tinnitus, an affliction that can be mildly annoying to downright frustrating. Low level “spa noise” producing hearing aids can help by masking the ring, although there is no cure.

Many with sensorineural hearing loss have difficulty discerning words in the midst of peripheral noise—think cocktail parties, crowded restaurants or the hubbub of entering a theatre. It’s almost as if there’s no difference in volume between the voice you’re trying to hear and the peripheral noise around you. It’s not your imagination.

Szynski describes how it works: “If someone has normal hearing, they are able to understand someone very well if the noise is 10 decibels above ‘the signal.’ That’s with a normal functioning auditory system. For those with auditory problems, the noise must be 10 decibels below the sound source in order to achieve comparable results, or you’re going to have trouble hearing and understanding. At that level, consonants will run together, and you have a tough time determining the difference. Did she say pat, cat, bat, hat or fat? And if you miss one word, you’re on this rabbit trail going this way, while the rest of the conversation is going that way; and then while you’re trying to make the sentence make sense, the rest of the crowd is already on the third, fourth or fifth sentence, and you’re just scrambling to keep up. So, you usually just keep quiet, and then people may think it’s a reflection of your intelligence. Finally, when your response is about a paragraph late and is totally off the wall, they just pause and look at you.”

Been there?

It’s not a good place to be.

Szynski holds a bachelor’s degree in deaf education, and a master’s and doctorate in audiology and has seen (or heard) it all. He worked briefly for the Navy, supervising hearing screenings of some 65,000 recruits in 13 states. He implemented one of the country’s first newborn screening programs at the University of Indiana Purdue (Fort Wayne) where he was a professor.

When a headhunter convinced him to consider Hilton Head Island and buy his own practice, he had no idea what Hilton Head Island was—or even where it was—until he visited in March of 2001 and learned that, contrary to his long-held belief that he was a four-seasons person, he was actually good for about a season and a half.

The weirdest coincidence—and Szynski is a true believer that these things don’t just happen—was that he bought the practice from Dr. Susan Flory, who had attended the same college where he taught, had lived in the same subdivision in Fort Wayne and even had some of the same friends.

Hilton Head became home for Szynski’s wife and four children until his wife contracted cancer and passed away in 2008—an intensely difficult time for him and his family, but a supportive time among his patients who had become like family.

Throughout a conversation with Szynski, there are clues to his central belief: Christianity. He mentions often that he is blessed. He talks of ethics and how in some practices patients are looked at as numbers or dollar signs while he prefers to get to know his patients. He talks of the importance of personal relationships. And, once the door is open to a frank discussion, he makes it clear that he uses the practice as a platform to share his belief with other people in a non-obtrusive way. He particularly emphasizes non-intrusive. He doesn’t proselytize.

Neither does he preach hearing aids. They have the power to help, he says, but not the power to heal. Therefore, he encourages hearing protection, noting that while a perfectly fitted earplug is the best, sponge types are probably the next best. If you hunt or shoot, then double protection is recommended—sponge type inside a headset—although one-time use of the sponge type is a must.

Hearing aids, however, do work, he says, and he marvels at the current technology. Those who don’t know the sophistication of hearing aids are unaware that some contain 32-bit processors and can adapt to dynamic lifestyles. Prices vary, of course, and while hearing aids have a reputation for being expensive Szynski says it’s all relative. If you pro-rate the cost across a five-year use period, a hearing aid can be cheaper than a daily cup of coffee.

A good audiologist experience depends on the audiologist. In the case of Szynski, his personal beliefs and professional philosophies merge into a simple matter of three principles.

First, he’s conservative in his approach with regard to fitting hearing aids. “Just because you come to my office and have a hearing impairment, that’s no reason to pressure you into buying a hearing aid,” Szynski said. “In fact, most of my patients come here for a diagnosis; we talk about hearing aids, and I ask them to leave and spend some time thinking about it. If they come back, it’s because the pressure is now removed and they’re ready for help.”

Second, he says that it’s overwhelmingly his caring about the person and not just the patient that sets his practice apart. He’s involved in the community and often donates hearing aids (and Bibles) to those who can’t afford them.

And third, if you’re looking for a genuine person with an audiology specialty, that’s Dr. Szynski. To a lot of people, he says, rather sheepishly, he’s almost like a priest—they open up and tell him things. He says that’s because—and this is perfect—he listens.

Hilton Head Hearing Services Inc. is located at 23 Main Street Suite 101A on Hilton Head and at 55B Sheridan Park in Bluffton. For more information call 843.681.6070 or visit www.hiltonheadhearing.com

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