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Cochlear implant changes Mueller’s life

By Ben Rodgers

HOBART – It’s a brand new world to Jaye P Mueller now that she has regained her ability to hear things clearly for the first time in a long time.

Mueller had hearing problems dating back to elementary school. Now 64 and in retirement, she is experiencing a sense many take for granted.

“You get frustrated,” Mueller said. “You get to the point where you just give up. Now, I’m one of the most social people in the world.”

Growing up in West Bend, Mueller got her first hearing aid early in life.

High fevers from chicken pox or measles would damage her hearing more and more until the point it would be classified as progressive degenerative hearing loss.

“I got my first hearing aid when I was in second grade and I got my second in fifth,” she said. “Back then special education was put her in the front row. I would pray the teacher wouldn’t turn around and write on the chalk board and talk because I wouldn’t understand.”

Her mother was adamant and insisted she learn to speak and not learn sign language. This helped Mueller in the long run.

She went on to complete her undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and her master’s degree at UW-Madison in social work and health care administration.

Throughout her schooling, Mueller said people treated her like something she was not.

“Some people are very insensitive to hearing-impaired people and they treat you like you are stupid,” she said.

But Mueller persevered and eventually moved to the Green Bay area, where she has lived for the past 30 years.

However, it wasn’t until a year ago this month that Mueller decided to do something to improve her lack of hearing that has bothered her for most of her life – get a cochlear implant.

“In reality it was fear, what was keeping me from pursuing it was fear,” she said, noting that she has never been in a hospital or had a surgery done before. “So I came home and I talked to my husband and said they are doing them in Green Bay.”

Previously, cochlear implants were only done in Madison and Milwaukee, but now Prevea Health in Green Bay can do the procedure.

Dr. Michael Oldenburg, otolaryngologist and cochlear implant surgeon at Prevea Health in Green Bay, said the implant is a quick outpatient procedure, but people need to be approved first.

“The candidates for an implant by definition can no longer use hearing aids well,” Dr. Oldenburg said. “It’s for people who have such bad hearing that even if you amplify the sound it just sounds like noise and you can’t understand any words.”

The implant takes audio signals and uses 22 different electrodes which send an electrical signal to the brain instead of the normal acoustic signal.

Those with implants have to relearn basic sounds.

Mueller said it’s not like videos online where those with an implant can hear perfectly immediately.

“We say that about 80 percent of the gain (in hearing) is in the first 6 months and the 20 percent in the next 6-18 months,” Dr. Oldenburg said. “It is a process because it is a different way to hear, it is an electrical stimulation vs. an acoustical adaption.”

At her last checkup, Mueller was at 80 percent comprehension, now she’s hoping to be closer to 90 percent.

Mueller said she would not have gotten this far without the help of her husband, Tom Winters, who helped her understand the most basic sounds like a truck rumbling down the road, or birds chirping in the trees.

Six months after the implant was installed, she made her first phone call, one most people would dread.

“I actually called about a bill dispute that I was having and I was on the phone like ‘Wow I can understand them just fine,’” she said. “This is amazing, now I am becoming a phone person. That is liberating.”

In addition to using a phone and being able to understand people, Mueller is also catching up on music she missed, mainly Allan Jackson and Shania Twain.

“After 40 years of not listening to music, I downloaded like 300 or 400 songs,” she said.

Mueller is also learning to enjoy a sport she has played for 20 years, where ironically quiet is the norm.

“I’ve been trying to golf for 20 years and my husband is a very avid golfer, and I think he’s done the best he could to teaching me, but at one point he broke down and bought me lessons.”

Mueller is in a women’s league around Green Bay, and the golfers here typically obey protocol.

It’s when she hits the course in her women’s league near White Potato Lake where etiquette takes a back seat.

“Golf protocol is when somebody is taking a swing you don’t talk, and in my women’s league up there they don’t necessarily follow that,” she said. “So I take a swing and they start talking and that blows me away.”

When Mueller isn’t trying her new three wood or blasting “Chattahoochee,” she spends her time as a volunteer for Cochlear, the company that makes the implants.

She also volunteers with Prevea to meet with anyone who has any questions about the technology that returned one of her five senses.

“When you change your life this much, you want to have someone else have this experience,” Mueller said.

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