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The Real Poop

There was an old couple who decided to drive cross country in their car. Both of them were almost legally deaf. About ten miles away from home, the burglar alarm for their car door went off and got stuck in the "on" position.

They drove all the way to San Francisco like this. You could hear them coming from three miles away.

The alarm didn’t seem to bother the old woman at all. She thought it was sort of pleasant. Near Chicago, she said to her husband, "It sounds like faraway bees on a summer day."

Her husband said, "What?"

(Laurie Anderson; Song: New Jersey Turnpike.

So. You're considering becoming an audiologist: someone who diagnoses and treats kids and adults with hearing loss and balance disorders. (Remember: Your sense of balance comes from your inner ear, and if that part of your ears isn't working properly, well, you get the gist of it: Whoa…why is the floor coming up to greet me?)

We just use a snippet of that song above as an example of how needed good audiologists are. Truth be told, one visit to an audiologist from our deaf couple in the above song (or perhaps even to their local DMV) might've helped everyone out here (but would have left out a good portion of the song).

Audiologists do a variety of things having to do with hearing loss and its related maladies, and audiologists are doctors. Doctors. While it’s always nice to be referred to as Doctor So-and-So, that shouldn’t be your main reason for wanting to become one (a doctor, not a so-and-so). The average salary of one Dr. Otis Hammer, whom you'll meet shortly, will make that apparent.

So what do audiologists do? Well, let's "begin at the beguine."

Here’s the "beguine": The term "audiology" was coined in 1945, which, to us, seems rather late since people have probably been having hearing problems since we slithered, slunk, or crawled out of the ocean with water in our earflaps, and again when we finally shimmied down from the trees sporting earwigs lodged in our still-forming middle ears.

Precisely who came up with the name of the career is in dispute. Certain research indicates it was Raymond Carhart and Norton Canfield, while some attest that William Hargrave, Stanley Nowak, and Mayer Schier were the "Fathers of Modern Audiology." (Whatever the case, we’re fairly certain the senior Mesdames Carhart, Canfield, Hargrave, Nowak, and Schier could spend a lifetime—with or without hearing aids—explaining why their particular son was the one who came up with the term.)

But really, never mind; we should just be glad that someone not only coined the term but also realized the full potential and usefulness of such a career and the people it could help.

What an audiologist does

Since 2012, all states require that audiologists have a doctorate degree, although an audiologist is an expert in non-medical treatment and management of hearing and balance. What that basically means is that as an audiologist, although you may prescribe surgery, you won't perform it; you'll consult with an otologist about that. So if blood and anesthesia aren't your thing but doctoring is, you’re in luck!

"10… 9… 8… W… green… agahshf… zzzzzzzz…"

A lot of what an audiologist does requires testing, diagnosis, fitting of hearing aids, and hearing rehabilitation, and many of the tools they use have been a big part of their training. (See the Tools of the Trade section.) Your patients may end up being recommended by their general doc to visit your office for a variety of reasons; in fact, some 4.5 million of 50-to-59-year-old Americans are experiencing hearing loss, yet only about 4.3 percent are using hearing aids. As well, 12 percent—or 38 million—Americans experience significant hearing loss.

And then there are the inventions of the Sony Walkman, portable CD players, MP3 players, earbuds, noise-reducing headphones, subwoofers, amplifiers (and their ilk), and you can correctly ascertain that audiologists have no lack of clients/customers/patients…whatever you want to call them (even call them $Kah-ching$—but only to yourself).

We mentioned previously that audiologists don't perform surgery but that they do recommend it. One of the most common surgeries recommended are “ear tubes.” These are usually advocated when a child (and it’s almost always a child) gets a lot of middle ear infections. Ear tubes—tiny cylinders—are surgically placed through the ear drum (the tympanic membrane) to allow air into the middle ear, which opens up the drum and cuts way down on ear infections (which can get really serious and even cause hearing loss).

Wax in, wax out.

Another, though less common surgery, is a cochlear implant—a sort of bionic ear—which is a device that contains two parts: one part that's implanted inside the ear, and the another part that's placed externally, behind the ear. Cochlear implants are prescribed for people who are profoundly deaf or very, very hard of hearing. But again, you, the audiologist, don't perform the surgery.

And where does an audiologist perform his or her functions?

Audiologists can work in schools, hospitals, rehab centers, long-term care facilities for the elderly or disabled, health departments (private or governmental), doctors' offices, shared offices with speech and language therapists, and can even have their own office and practice. Chances are you've seen an audiologist and may not even remember: They often visit public (and even private) elementary schools (just as dentists and optometrists do) to give the kids a quick test to see if someone is not being recognized as hearing-impaired.

If it's the middle of winter and you hear something that sounds like the sound of faraway bees on a summer day, chances are a trip to the audiologist may be warranted.