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Surgery helps Salt Lake mother restore hearing lost during pregnancy

Published: Friday, Nov. 18 2011 2:58 p.m. MST

Heather Simonsen during doctor visit on Nov. 8, 2011, in Salt Lake City. She earlier underwent surgery to correct a condition that caused her to lose hearing during pregnancy and delivery.

Marc Weaver, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The first sounds of life are miraculous for every parent, and Heather Simonsen was excited to experience all of the first noises with her children, but her sense of hearing diminished with each new delivery.

"It's very discombobulating and disconcerting," she said. "I didn't know what was wrong."

Simonsen started to recognize her hearing was fading with her first two pregnancies. With each pregnancy, her ears felt clogged and sounds would come and go. She went to see an ear, nose and throat specialist, who told her she was beginning to lose hearing in her left ear and would soon need hearing aids.

"I could tell when I was losing hearing. Gradually I would have these symptoms ringing in my ear," she said.

Simonsen accepted it and figured it was something she would have to live with, until she delivered her third child in August of last year.

Hours after delivery, Simonsen's doctors came in to speak with her and she couldn't hear what they were saying.

"I could tell they were talking to me, but I could not hear them at all," she said. "I could tell that they were speaking more loudly, but I could not understand what they were saying."

Her doctor recommended she see a surgeon at the University Hospital, who diagnosed her with a condition called otosclerosis — a genetic hearing condition that affects the third hearing bone. The bone becomes fixed to the surrounding bone so that it cannot vibrate and transmit sound.

There was something with Simonsen's pregnancy and delivery that worsened the condition dramatically.

"We don't know why it happens more with pregnancy, but we have found … in patients who already have the problem of hearing loss, it seems to be accelerated during pregnancy," said Dr. Kevin Wilson, an otolaryngologist.

As many as 10 percent of the population may suffer from the condition, but they have not exhibited severe enough symptoms to warrant a diagnosis. In Simonsen's case, she did not know she had otosclerosis until she became pregnant.

The condition is also more common in young women. However, hearing can be improved with hearing aids or surgery.

"We lift up the ear drum and actually remove the third hearing bone and then drill a small hole in the inner ear and replace it with a prosthetic bone — a titanium piston prosthesis going from the second hearing bone to the inner ear and bypasses the problem," Wilson said.

There are risks with the surgery; however, it has a 90 percent success rate.

Simonsen opted for the operation, which allowed her to once again hear the sounds of her children. "I can hear better than I've been able to hear in probably a decade," she described. "Even hearing her cry is wonderful because I know I can respond."

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