Hearing clinics detect problems

MICHAEL KELLY The Marietta Times Dr. Richard Gunovich examines Zander Greathouse, 7, of Marietta during a hearing clinic at the Marietta Health Department on Thursday afternoon.

Children and their families shuffled around the second floor hallway of the Marietta City Hall Annex on Putnam Street, talking to nurses and therapists, sitting and waiting, heading into exam rooms. Some had been referred by schools, others by agencies, some came in on their own.

The event was a free hearing clinic held by the Marietta City Health Department.

Public Health nurse Vickie Kelly said the free hearing tests are offered several times a year. Until a few years ago the clinics were funded by the Ohio Health Department, but after the state discontinued its financial support, the city carried it on with the help of the Memorial Health System, she said. The hearing exams were too important to drop, she said.

“The Ohio Department of Health used to sponsor clinics in areas where there were no providers, such as cardiac, eye and hearing, but they gradually kept giving them up,” said Kelly, who has been a public health nurse since 1993. “There is such a need, we have a lot of kids with ear problems. Our health commissioner, Dr. (Michael) Brockett, went to the hospital to ask whether they could help us.”

As a result, Dr. Richard Gunovich, along with an audiologist and a speech pathologist, offer their services several times a year for the afternoon clinics.

Hearing trouble can affect children in numerous ways, Kelly said, but most parents or caregivers become aware of a problem when their children have obvious problems with speech — to talk well, you need to be able to hear well.

Kelly explained that most of their referrals come from schools, which administer screening tests for hearing to students yearly from kindergarten through third grade, and again in fifth grade and one middle school and high school grade.

There is no cost to the patients, an important factor in getting parents to participate.

“It’s a service to the community, it’s free to all, insured or not,” she said. “They get to see a specialist, get tested and see a speech pathologist.”

The human hearing system is complicated and full of small parts, all which have to be functioning properly for people to hear clearly. Although many things can go wrong with it, most often in this part of Ohio hearing problems in children originate with recurrent upper respiratory infections — colds and flu — that deposit fluids behind the eardrum.

“There’s supposed to be air behind the eardrum to transmit the vibrations,” Gunovich said. “When there’s chronic fluid in there, the eardrum doesn’t vibrate.”

Gunovich, who has practiced for more than 10 years with the Memorial Health System, is the otolaryngologist at the clinic. He explained that the eustachian tubes, a connection between the breathing system and the ear that equalizes air pressure behind the eardrum, can become clogged during the runny nose, sneezing and cough period of respiratory tract infections, channeling fluid into the hearing system which lingers after the infection is gone.

If the problem is chronic, the installation of tiny tubes through the eardrum is the curative process, he said. They allow the fluid to drain.

“It’s a substitute for the eustachian tubes,” he said.

At the clinic, an audiologist tests hearing acuity. One method, Gunovich explained, uses a set of tuning forks to determine the patient’s response to different sound frequencies. Human speech falls mainly in the low to mid-range of audible sound, but letters in speech have different sound frequncies — for example, the sound of the letters ‘p’ and ‘t’ are a higher frequency than most, a sound that a person with high-frequency hearing problems might not hear while clearing hearing other parts of the word..

The audiologist’s test chart goes with the patient into the doctor’s examination room.

Looking at the chart for 7-year-old Zander Greathouse of Marietta, Gunovich told him he passed on all frequencies. He then examined the boy’s ears and nose and asked him to speak a few letters to check his speech progress.

“Keep up the speech work,” he told Zander, who smiled back at him and said emphatically he didn’t want any more tubes put in his ears.

Gunovich said during a break in the hallway that it’s important for hearing problems to be identified and treated at a young age, “when language is developing rapidly.”

Sampson and Gunovich said the work is rewarding.

“Kids come in to us, and when their hearing gets cleared up, amazing things happen,” she said. “They talk about how loud normal sounds are …”

“Their speech ability, it just explodes,” Gunovich said.

Hearing, he said, is a crucial connection to the world.

“It was Helen Keller who said, ‘My blindness isolated me from things, but my deafness isolated me from people,'” he said.

More hearing clinics will be held in coming months, all on Thursday afternoons: March 15, May 17 and July 19. Kelly said more will be scheduled after school begins in the fall and schools have had a chance to do hearing screenings.

At a glance

Indications for hearing tests:

≤ Mother had German measles, viral infection or flu or drank alcoholic beverages during pregnancy.

≤ Newborns with birthweight under 3.5 pounds, jaundiced, more than five days in neonatal intensive care, had meningitis or given antibiotics through injection.

≤ Family history of hearing problems early in life.

≤ Infants with skull injury or recurring ear infections.

≤ Newborns, infants or toddlers who don’t respond normally to sound.

Source: American Academy of Otolaryngology.

What’s ahead

Schedule of hearing tests at the Marietta Public Health Department

≤ March 15.

≤ May 17.

≤ July 19.

≤ Clinics are generally 1 to 4 p.m.

≤ Marietta Health Department: 304 Putnam St., second floor, 740-373-2011, ext. 2309.