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Minneapolis VA Health Care System


Cochlear Implants Now Offered at Minneapolis VA

Cochlear Implants Now Offered To Minneapolis VA Patients with Profound Hearing Loss

November 29, the first Minneapolis VA cochlear implant patient, Korean War Veteran Douglas Heinrich had his device activated. Pictured (l to r): Dr. Jerrica Rieger, audiologist, Samuel Levine, MD, ENT surgeon, and Veteran patient, Douglas Heinrich. (VA photo by April Eilers)

By Ralph Heussner, Public Affairs Officer
Friday, December 9, 2016

For many years, Minneapolis VA Veterans with significant hearing loss who no longer benefit from hearing aids would travel to the Iowa City VA to obtain a cochlear implant.

The implant surgery, which typically lasts two to three hours, would be followed by regular clinic visits - sometimes as many as six a year - to adjust the device. Travel and access to care posed a hardship for Minneapolis VA patients.

Earlier this year, the Veterans Health Administration’s National Surgery Office approved a cochlear implant program at the Minneapolis VA. Only about 40 programs exist in the VA system with the closest being Iowa City or Seattle VA.

On November 29, the first patient, Korean War Veteran Douglas Heinrich of Rush City, MN had his device activated, meaning that the electrical stimulator imbedded in the skull was receiving electrical signals to the ear. The implant surgery was performed weeks earlier by Samuel Levine, MD, a neurosurgeon in the ENT Department at the Minneapolis VA.

“Cochlear implants have been my passion coming into my career,” said Dr. Jerrica Rieger, Minneapolis VA audiologist and head of the new program. “Finding out this service was not offered here is what ignited me to bring this service to our Veterans.”

Dr. Rieger, who came to the VA three years ago after completing her residency/clinical externship at the Cleveland Clinic, was the driving force behind the VA application. Successful management of the implant involves the inter-disciplinary collaboration of audiologists, otolaryngologists, primary care physicians, psychologists, speech-language pathologists, vestibular specialists, and other professionals.

Cochlear implantation is not an immediate cure. It can take many months, and numerous clinic follow-up visits, to properly “map” the new electric signal to the brain.

Patients can achieve up to 60 to 70% of hearing function with the device. Cochlear implants are considered the most successful prosthetic sensory device for restoration of function in the history of medicine. But Dr. Rieger cautions there is no “typical” case and, sometimes, the benefit is minimal.

For more information, contact Dr. Rieger in the Audiology Clinic at 612-467-4082

How does it work? A cochlear implant is made up of both an internal implant and external sound processor which converts sound into an electric signal. The cochlear implant system is designed to electrically stimulate the auditory nerve directly, bypassing the damaged hair cells in the inner ear. The signal is then sent to the brain and is interpreted as sound.

What it means for the VAMC? Improved quality of life, communication, and access of care to our Veterans while using the most cutting edge technology. Veterans will be seen closer to home and in a more timely manner without the hardship of travel. Additionally, this program allows for educational opportunities for both practitioners and future residents alike, by providing state of the art training and technology for the on-going advancement of the field and expandability of services offered.

How many patients may benefit? About 10-15 of the most adversely affected Veterans per year to start but the number will increase. Minneapolis VA has identified more than 250 candidates based on testing.

What about hearing aids? Hearing aids are a solution for many with hearing loss, there may come a point where even the most sophisticated hearing aids are no longer effective. This may lead to social implications, depression, cognitive and physical decline. After surgery, most cochlear implant recipients demonstrate improvement in their ability to understand speech, even in noisy environments.

Who qualifies? At least a moderate to profound sensorineural hearing loss in both ears, good health, psychological/emotional stability, lack of benefit from conventional amplification, and the absence of medical conditions contraindicating surgical intervention. Candidates must have most of their auditory system intact for the implant to work and the willingness to undergo an extended program of rehabilitation.


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