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Moments: Lifelong dancer hears the music once more after cochlear implant

Rita was completely deaf when she was referred to University of Minnesota Health.
After losing her hearing as an adult, Rita Wilson learned to salsa dance by feeling vibrations through the floor. But when a cochlear implant restored her hearing, everything changed.

Rita Wilson's hearing loss as an adult didn't keep her from enjoying life and exploring new things. As a wife, mother of four, employee and volunteer, she kept plenty busy. She even learned to salsa dance by following the beat of the music through the vibrations on the floor. 

Then she received cochlear implants at University of Minnesota Medical Center, and everything changed.

Candidate for cochlear implants
Rita was completely deaf when she was referred to University of Minnesota Health and evaluated for cochlear implants. Patients with significant hearing loss who cannot be helped by hearing aids and are eager to join the hearing world are considered good candidates for the surgery. A patient's eligibility for implants also relies on exact numbers from hearing tests, and, with rapid improvements in technology and data, those measures are increasingly precise.

Rita had already received a recommendation for implants, but there were no guarantees. From her perspective, there would be no loss, only gain. She was already living a very fulfilling life; the implants could only improve it.

University of Minnesota Health Otolaryngologist and Neurotologist Sam Levine, MD, performed Rita’s implant surgery. A neurotologist is a surgeon who specializes in neurological conditions of the ear. 

Learn more about our cochlear implant program. 

But Levine is quick to point out that a cochlear implant procedure is a "team sport." Pre- and post- operative care requires an otolaryngologist/neurotologist, audiologist, psychologist, speech therapist, as well as other medical professionals. Rita describes her team as “very thorough and supportive." 

"They answered every question and introduced me to people who already had cochlear implants. It was high level of care,” she said. 

Re-learning to hear
A cochlear implant consists of internal and external parts. The internal device is surgically implanted under the skin behind the ear. The receiver and computer processor, situated externally, are activated and programmed four to six weeks after the surgery. The device does not restore hearing. Instead, it electrically stimulates the auditory nerve and the patient perceives sounds. So, when the device is activated, a new journey of re-learning begins.

Patients with cochlear implants have to re-associate the sounds they perceive with their auditory memory, and they use visual cues in the process. “Engineered hearing is very different. For example, I couldn't tell the difference between the faucet running and my dog lapping water. Making the visual connection helped,” Rita said.

She also had to re-learn to dance. When she first studied salsa dancing, she followed the beat through the vibrations of the music. When she could hear the music, she had to train herself differently. It took hours of listening to the music and practicing dancing at home in her living room. Her positive attitude and determination paid off; she continues to dance at Hopkins Center for Arts and assists the instructor, too.

Rita’s hearing results are exceptional. In a pre-operative assessment, she was asked to repeat 20 simple sentences; she was unable to repeat any of them. After the surgery, she scored 100 percent.

Helping others
“Deafness can be an emotionally debilitating condition,” Levine said. “Restoring hearing can be liberating. But the unknowns also create anxiety for our patients. It’s a big decision.”

Rita is now a mentor for the Bionic Ear Association and she helps people who recently received implants and those who are considering it. For Rita, the device has expanded her boundaries, giving her more confidence and independence. Her advice to others? 

“Keep trying new things. Don’t worry about failure. Your success depends on your attitude and belief in yourself.”