Dr. Veronika Wolter offers a first stop for patients with damaged hearing at the new Helios Hörklinik Oberbayern, the Upper Bavaria hearing clinic in Helios Hospital Munich West in the Bavarian state capital. “I know how difficult life can be when you are hard of hearing, as I am myself deaf and wear two implants,” Wolter said. “From normal hearing to nothing at all – I have experienced all this myself.”
(Published: December 2022)
At the age of nine, she contracted meningitis. The disease initially caused medium hearing loss and eventually a near total loss of hearing. A cochlear implant allowed her to recoup her ability to hear. Today the physician and mother of two children, now 40, is a renowned specialist for artificial hearing prosthetics. Veronika Wolter is not only Germany’s first deaf chief physician in an acute care hospital, she also is the world’s only deaf chief physician for ear, nose and throat disorders.
Life has not always been easy. In school, other students systematically shut her out, and teachers told her she didn’t belong in a normal school; they would have loved to transfer her to a school for the deaf. “That was something I could not conceive of at all,” Wolter recalled. “It was completely strange to me and sounded like a threat. It was not a very nice time at all, and I often felt very alone.”
The skepticism continued in university. “How will you be able to use a stethoscope?” one professor asked. “As a person with damaged hearing,” said another, “you can forget about ever being allowed to operate.”
"The implants were a real game changer that have had an unbelievably positive influence on my life."
The many humiliations and hurdles caused Wolter to adopt a seize-the-moment attitude. And her parents were always supportive, which was a great help. Then came the event that really helped set her free: In 2005 the young medical student became only the third person in the world to receive the newly developed Carina System, which was completely implantable and can be counted as a first step toward modern-day implants. The cochlear implant, which is the only medical system that can artificially compensate for the lost nerve cells, followed four years later.
A cochlear implant is an artificial inner ear set in place through surgery. It consists of two components: One of them is affixed in an operation on the bone behind the ear. A second component is attached from the outside. While a hearing aid is limited to boosting sound that can stimulate damaged hairs that act as receptors in the inner ear, a cochlear implant allows the patient to hear through the auditory nerve, which generally is damage-free. Before an operation is considered, a careful diagnosis is undertaken to confirm that the auditory nerve is intact and that the patient is suitable for an inner ear prosthesis.
Cochlear implant recipients can now score the same as a person with normal hearing on hearing and speech tests commonly in use today. At the 65-decibel level of normal speech, many recipients can understand every spoken word. Nonetheless, there are still situations where persons with normal hearing have an advantage – in noisy surroundings such as a restaurant or an airport. Additional tools are available to help in these situations. Wolter, for example, likes to use AudioStream, a direct streaming system, when telephoning: An integrated receiver set in the external component works with AudioStream to make the sound on telephone calls as clear as glass, even with background noises. The acoustic signals are transmitted wirelessly and invisibly to both ears.
Those who don’t know Wolter is deaf also won’t be able to hear it in her speech and won’t at first see anything different. “I became deaf after I had learned to speak, so I know what normal hearing and speech is all about,” she said. “That’s why you can’t notice the difference in me. On top of that, I have excellent hearing, thanks to my ear prostheses. The outside components to the implant – the processors and the transmitter– sit on the ear much like eyeglass arms. If I want to, I can hide them under my hair. The implants were a real game changer that have had an unbelievably positive influence on my life.”
As one with the same affliction, she has a special understanding of her patients. Wolter understands the difficulties they face, their fears and concerns as well as their hopes and dreams. “Sometimes,” she said, “we understand each other without words.”