How a Houston doctor with hearing loss is helping patients like him

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Listening carefully to patients is part of nurse practitioner Coreen Fazakerly’s job description. But for years, she couldn’t always hear them.

Fazakerly, a Kingwood resident, has found other ways to connect with patients. She started reading lips and picking up body language. And she has become more attuned to the environment.

“I started to listen deeper, to hear in different ways,” she said. “As humans, we have the ability to adapt, and I did.”

Fazakerly, 63, began to suffer from hearing loss in high school. The noisy cafeteria, the clatter of trays and the cacophony of conversation made it difficult to hear a conversation across the table.

“But I didn’t recognize him,” Fazakerly said.

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In her twenties, she went out with friends and had to bend over to hear them. When her nursing career took her to Houston in 1984, she faced a similar noisy environment – ​​the ICU, complete with beeping monitors and audible alarms.

Fazakerly realized that her hearing was affecting her choices: she had wanted to be a helicopter nurse but decided against it, knowing she wouldn’t be able to hear voices over the noise.

Finally, a colleague insisted that Fazakerly have his hearing tested, saying, “I came behind you and you didn’t hear me.

“I had been in denial at the time,” Fazakerly said. “I turned around and said, ‘You’re absolutely right. I’m going to have my hearing tested. It’s time.'”

Time for a hearing test

Fazakerly discovered that she suffered from sensorineural hearing loss. She could hear low-pitched sounds normally, but had difficulty in high-pitched sounds.

At that time, her hearing loss was not too severe and she opted for a hearing aid in one ear. Later, she learned that one of the hearing aids had taken over, leaving the other ear to quickly lose function.

At 30, Fazakerly had bilateral hearing aids and was constantly visiting for checkups and to have the devices readjusted.

“I had a very thick record,” said Fazakerly, who tried analog and then digital hearing aids. Yet his hearing continued to decline.

When one of her two sons was talking, she had to drop what she was doing, walk into their room and listen carefully to understand what they were saying.

About two years ago, her audiologist told her, “You are reaching the point where a cochlear implant is in your future.

“I thought, I’m fine. I’m fine,” Fazakerly recalled. “I didn’t want to kiss her at first.”

Being in the medical field, she knew progress was being made all the time and wanted to wait.

In the fall of 2019, Fazakerly changed her mind.

A hearing impaired doctor

A seminar at Baylor College of Medicine focusing on cochlear implants helped her make the decision.

“I couldn’t deny it anymore,” Fazakerly said. “I had more and more difficulty hearing.

Even with the volume turned up, voices on a phone call were hard to discern.

“People got used to texting me, because I couldn’t hear on the phone,” she said. But her biggest motivations were her three grandchildren.

“I couldn’t hear their voices,” she said. “I wanted to be able to hear what they were trying to tell me.”

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The connection with Dr. J. Connor Sullivan, an audiologist at Baylor College of Medicine, also influenced her choice. Sullivan also had a cochlear implant – and had her own experience with hearing loss dating back to her early childhood.

“There are a lot of things I don’t have to explain to him because he already understands,” Fazakerly said. “You can read and research, but you never have the lived experience. It definitely makes a difference that Dr. Sullivan is doing this.

Sullivan was just 4 years old when his kindergarten teacher noticed he wasn’t following instructions, and his mother, Michelle Webb, made a doctor’s appointment.

“That’s how they found it,” Sullivan said. “It was a shock to everyone.”

Yet he had a team of experts who helped him get hearing aids and learn to listen and speak.

He was diagnosed with an enlarged vestibular aqueduct and progressive hearing loss, which would worsen over time. Whenever necessary, Sullivan’s doctor turned up the volume on his hearing aids.

Then, at age 19, in his freshman year at the University of Oklahoma, the sound stopped altogether.

“I thought my hearing aids were broken,” Sullivan recalled.

He eventually discovered cochlear implants, an option for severe hearing loss or when hearing aids no longer work.

Before having surgery, Sullivan watched videos on YouTube that documented the moment others could hear their cochlear implants activating for the first time.

Finally, on January 5, 2011, it was his turn.

Sullivan clearly remembers his audiologist counting “one, two, three” as he slowly rotated his cochlear implant.

Suddenly his eyes lit up. He could hear.

“There is an adjustment period,” he said. “It takes some time for your brain to get used to what you hear.”

Sullivan was listening to music playing at the mall. He noticed a crying baby in the hallway.

“It’s almost indescribable how different it is,” he said.

After another semester in college, he quit his theater major to become an audiologist.

“Getting a cochlear implant was life changing, and I would have a cool story to share with patients,” he said.

Adapt to the new sound

Fazakerly had a similar adjustment period after her first cochlear implant in January 2020.

“Your brain has to hear differently,” she said. “It’s a totally different type of sound. Also, having worn hearing aids for so many years, I was also used to louder volume. I had to learn to process sound in a new way.

In August, she decided to have the second cochlear implant.

“The second one was a breeze,” Fazakerly said. “My brain was already used to it.”

Today, she delights in hearing a bird sing and especially the voice of her grandchildren.

“I’m excited to be able to have a conversation on the phone,” she said. “It’s so wonderful to be able to hear words.”

Her speech also became clearer, as she heard more distinctly.

Her hearing loss had been such a slow, gradual process that she didn’t realize all the little sounds she was missing.

Fazakerly remembers listening to the patter of rain on his roof.

“I forgot what it looked like,” she said.

And for the first time, she heard her fountain through the back door.

“I look forward to the next chapter of my life,” she said. “I encourage people to do it as soon as possible.”

Help others regain their hearing

Getting a cochlear implant can be a tough decision, Sullivan explained.

“It’s permanent; it’s not something you can take away,” he said. “But for me it was not difficult.”

He wanted to hear again – and he wanted to help others when they were faced with their own difficult decisions about hearing.

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Sullivan earned her bachelor’s degree in communication disorders from the University of Oklahoma and then her doctorate in audiology from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

He completed a residency at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, before moving to Houston to be with his wife, Stevie Sullivan, who is also an audiologist and was training at the Center for Hearing and Speech at the time.

They earned their doctorates together and got married last October. Stevie Sullivan is now an audiologist at UT Physicians.

Both are passionate about their work, Sullivan said.

“What wakes me up every day is knowing that you can help someone hear better and connect better with their family,” he said. “That’s the whole story.”

Lindsay Peyton is a freelance writer based in Houston.

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