Kevin was in his mid-40s when he began to notice that he wasn’t hearing quite as well as in the past. But the change was gradual, so he didn’t worry about it. A few years went by, and the hearing loss became more noticeable. “I started having problems hearing on the phone,” he recalled. “Words were sometimes distorted. It was very weird.”
At the urging of his wife, Kevin went to see an otolaryngologist, a physician who specializes in the care of the ear, nose and throat. The doctor did several hearing tests and told Kevin he had lost 20 percent of his hearing in his left ear. The loss of hearing could be the result of some unknown factor, he told Kevin, or it could indicate a tumor. Probably not, the doctor added, but he ordered an MRI scan anyway.
“I had the MRI and sure enough, there was a mass nearly one inch in size,” Kevin said.
Kevin was then referred to the UC Brain Tumor Center team of Myles Pensak, MD, an otolaryngologist at UC Health, and John M. Tew, MD, a neurosurgeon with Cincinnati’s Mayfield Clinic. Kevin’s symptoms, Dr. Pensak said, were consistent with an acoustic neuroma, a benign brain tumor that grows from the sheath of nerves responsible for hearing and balance within the internal auditory canal. Kevin had never heard of an acoustic neuroma before. Both surgeons, who saw Kevin on the same day, agreed that the tumor should be removed to avoid further growth and damage to other nerves and the brain.
“I was given the straight scoop,” Kevin said. “Dr. Pensak said I could wait a while to have the surgery, but the situation wouldn’t get any better. He also told me that the operation would cause me to lose my hearing in that ear. Dr. Tew said he thought they had a 50-50 chance of saving my hearing. It didn’t take me long to decide what to do. I had to have it done, and I wanted to have it done as soon as possible.”
Dr. Pensak and Dr. Tew collaborated on the surgery, which took place at Cincinnati’s University Hospital on January 6, 2006. The procedure, which they had estimated would take five or six hours, was completed in three because of the tumor’s accessibility.
“The first night was kind of rough in the hospital,” Kevin said. “I was in a little pain. I couldn’t eat and I was nauseated, but it wasn’t terrible. The next morning, which was a Saturday, both Dr. Tew and Dr. Pensak came in to see me, which was nice. I began feeling better that day. Dr. Tew told me I should get up and start walking, and he said tomorrow (Sunday) you can go home. By the time Saturday night rolled around, I got up and walked in the hallway. On Saturday night Dr. Tew came by again; he was dressed to go out. He was genuinely interested in how I was doing.
“Sunday I got up and walked around and ate, and Monday I went home. I had a bandage on the back of my head. I only had problems if I moved my head too quickly, which made me feel off balance. I also had the hiccups for three days. They say the anesthesia can do that. The hiccups would stop, but if I ate or drank anything they’d come back and last for about 30 minutes. On the plus side, I didn’t have a lot of headaches or pain, which I attribute to the good care my doctors provided.”
A week later, Kevin said, he was beginning to get bored sitting around the house. He went back to work the last week in January, three weeks after the surgery.
As Dr. Pensak had predicted, Kevin did lose all hearing in his left ear.
“When I first woke up from the operation I thought I could hear,” Kevin said. “But after a day or so I realized I couldn’t hear anything. But it wasn’t as big a deal as I thought it might be. When you’re first told that you might lose your hearing, it sounds awful. But the crux of it is the tumor was not cancerous, and it was relatively small. It could have been bigger. It was beginning to push on my brain, but it hadn’t caused any problems brain problems. I was extremely lucky.”
Kevin has adjusted to hearing out of only one ear. While on the phone at work, he wears a headset, which blocks extraneous noise, gives him full use of his good ear, and allows him to use both hands while taking notes.
“Sometimes in a crowd or if I’m in a restaurant or bar I have to concentrate because of background noise,” he said. “Also, I can’t always tell exactly where sound is coming from. But it hasn’t interfered with my work. I’m careful where I sit so that I can position my good ear toward the person who’s speaking. All in all, I’ve been hindered much less than I would have expected.”
Five months after his surgery, Kevin said he was enjoying all the activities he participated in before the operation. In addition to working full-time, he was working out twice a week with a fitness trainer. “If you didn’t know that this had happened to me,” he said, “you’d never be able to tell.”