Every morning, Otis Hammer’s alarm is set at just the right volume: loud enough—like busy street traffic (70 decibels—dB)—to wake him and his bedmate, but not so loud it startles the hair cells in their ears enough to cause instant and permanent hearing loss (160 dB). Otis is a very considerate man (not to mention a knowledgeable one).
Otis performs his morning routine and is careful to clean his outer ears with a washcloth and not a Q-tip. (A Q-tip to an audiologist is like to garlic to a vampire—more on that later.)
When Otis was just starting out in his career, right out of med school, he worked as a traveling school audiologist. This means he worked for a county school district and went from school to school—depending on the day, the week, the semester, etc.—where he tested each student in the school (mostly elementary schools) and wrote a quick note to the teacher and/or parent letting them know his very rudimentary findings. Then it was pretty much up to the parents to decide what to (or what not) to do. It wasn’t the most fulfilling job ever, but it was a start.
Truth be told, Otis felt like his doctorate degree was being a tad wasted, considering that all he was doing was basic and rudimentary testing of a gazillion school children every year (not to mention he had to rent a studio apartment that he could barely afford on his salary (managed by a scowling, mumbling, fuzzy-haired landlady who scoffed at the “M.D.” after his name on his rent checks).
But over the last few years, things have changed. Otis has developed a reputation as a very good audiologist whose patients show great progress, and he now shares office space with practitioners who treat various related and totally unrelated maladies and diseases: Five pediatric dentists, four obstetricians, three speech pathologists, two occupational therapists and our Otis with his bonsai tree. (Sing it; it works better that way.)
This isn't really going to give us a lot of shade for our picnic.
And so, as Otis goes about his day treating a variety of people with a variety of ear, hearing, and balance-related issues.
Grandma’s children and grandchildren are growing weary of repeating—loudly and often—everything they say to her (and have told her as such, as gently—and loudly—as possible). So Grandma, in turn, is starting to feel paranoid about why everyone seems to be laughing—at her?—when people (in particular) are on her left side.
A young man suspects he’s starting to lose his mind from the noises in his head. They’re not telling him to do anything (hence a visit to an audiologist, not a psychotherapist); they’re just ringing, on and off (mostly on). Dr. Hammer suspects Tinnitus.
A middle-aged woman and mother of three has had a recent head trauma—a concussion caused by a seizure—and she’s noticed that since then she’s been having trouble hearing, having some balance problems and the feeling of pressure in her ears. Perhaps there’s been some blood coming from her ears. (Maybe an emergency room visit might be a better choice for that one—at least before she waits for an audiologist’s appointment book to open up…)
A healthy 85-year-old woman who’s having trouble with her balance (not uncommon in elderly people and can be caused by any number of things including medication mixing, the simple fact that organs wear out, or even a viral or bacterial infection.) Mrs. Feist, a spirited 100-pounder who’s living on her own and is not about to rely on a walker or a cane for the rest of her golden years, was referred to Dr. Hammer by her general practitioner. After some hemming and hawing, Mrs. Feist was convinced by her granddaughter to give an audiologist a chance.
After examining Mrs. Feist’s inner ear, Otis asks her certain questions, and when medications are ruled out and his patient indicates that the balance loss happened fairly suddenly, Otis takes another look at Mrs. Feist’s ear. He notices a slight swelling and redness in the inner ear. He uses one of his tools to take a sample of the surrounding tissue, tells Mrs. Feist he’ll send it to a lab and call her with the results within three days. Otis suspects it’s a bacterial infection causing the old lady’s balance problems, and knows that a course of antibiotics should clear it right up. He tells Mrs. Feist and her granddaughter as such, and watches as their faces relax. Otis takes this moment, this small window of opportunity, to offer the wobbling 85-year-old a cane to borrow just for the next few days for safety. Much to his—and the granddaughter’s surprise and relief—Mrs. Feist begrudgingly takes the cane and mumbles “Three days only” under her breath.
Looking dapper, Mrs. Feist.
The rest of the day goes about the same—different clients with different issues:
The refitting and adjusting of six pairs of hearing aids.
A 2-year-old who’s never heard has just been fitted with cochlear implants and needs Dr. Hammer to optimize the device to fit the child’s needs and begin to train her how to interpret sounds. Cochlear implants are complicated devices that take some time getting used to, especially by the profoundly deaf.
A 13-year-old with impacted ear wax who’s having hearing issues (seemingly caused by impacted ear wax, his mother’s overuse of Q-tips and the volume of his MP3 player). Otis offers two handouts: one for Sonny about music volume, and the other one for mom about the evils of Q-tips and how to use mineral oil or olive oil to loosen the kid’s stubborn and excessive wax. (Otis explains that Q-tips just PUSH the ear wax farther down into the ear drum causing pain and hearing loss. (That saying “Don’t put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear” rings true. Is true. Ringing might be Tinnitus.)