MIDDLEBURG – When Mark Adrick’s life changed when he heard his 3½-year-old granddaughter for the first time in years.
No longer a prisoner of his own solitude, the retired Navy Captain still fights tears when he thinks about finally hearing her chirpy voice weeks after getting his first Cochlear implant.
“I still get emotional,” he said. “I never thought I’d hear that voice, that adorable voice, again.”
With more than 4,300 airborne hours, 30 years of flying helicopters took a brutal toll on Adrick’s ears. At first sounds seemed muffled. Then faint. And eventually gone.
“I’m hard-headed,” he said. “I was still flying helicopters on active duty when I was losing my hearing. By the time you realize you have hearing loss, it’s too late. At the time I didn’t think too much about it. Most people don’t.”
Adrick earned his “Wings of Gold” from the Navy in 1978. While he’s trained to fly airplanes and helicopters, he spent most of his career aboard a SH-3H Sea King and the SH-60F/HH-60H Seahawk.
Years of eye-blurring jet engines and caustic exhaust assaulted the sensitive cochlea nerve and associated structures. Worse yet, there was no hope of repair.
Adrick suffered from sensorineural hearing loss. It’s a condition that can be treated, but not cured, and it’s caused by damage to the inner ear. The most common cause is prolonged exposure to loud noises, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Adrick eventually was deemed legally and clinically deaf.
There are an estimated nearly 2.7 million military veterans with some level of hearing loss. For Adrick, he not only loss his ability to hear, he lost his ability to function in public settings.
“I found myself faking it more and more,” Adrick said. “I acted like I knew what was being said, what was going on. But I didn’t. I was lost.”
Hearing aids helped, but they only offered short-term solutions. For the most part, Adrick lived in silence between 2003-2012. What he could hear, he didn’t understand. He still remembers the holiday seasons from 2013 and 2014, being surrounded by family and still feeling secluded.
But what hurt the most was not hearing his granddaughter, “Doodle,” laugh and play.
“That was a difficult time for me,” Adrick said. “I couldn’t understand conversation at the dinner table. Even when you’re with your family, you’re still alone when you can’t hear anything.”
He also couldn’t continue to work as a substitute teacher at Fleming Island High.
“I wasn’t being fair to the kids,” he said.
Cochlear implants were a final attempt to re-program his brain into putting understandable thought to sound. The implant is a small electronic device that can provide a sense of sound. A transmitter and receiver/stimulator are attached to the skull behind the ear. And electrode is positioned at the ear drum with a speech processor and microphone in the middle.
A cochlear implant doesn’t restore hearing. It gives a deaf person a useful representation of sounds to help make speech more understandable. Since the brain only understands signals supplied by the ear drum, Adrick had to learn to connect electronic impulses with words.
“When I got the cochlear implants, my speech recognition was about 28%,” he said. “Now it’s at 86% with 90% comprehension in both ears. I had to learn how to hear all over again. Once you go live (with the implants), your brain has to learn how to associate with sound again. You never know what to expect. It just takes time. It just takes patience.”
Adrick now can hear well enough he’s been able to return to the classroom. He also volunteers at the Jacksonville Hearing and Balance Institute, working with cochlear implant recipients as they go through rehabilitation.
Most important, he now can hear his granddaughter.
“I’m able to function again,” he said. “I’m still working on my communication, but this has been life-changing for me.”