BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ — Nearly four years ago, Joan Rekemeier’s life changed forever after she caught what she thought was a common cold.
It was like any other spring morning as her two young sons woke her by jumping on the bed, but instead of hearing their usual laughter, the only thing Rekemeier could hear were what sounded like robots.
The virus she had contracted caused irreversible nerve damage, leaving her with deafness in her right ear.
“The possibility of it being hearing loss was not even on the table for me,” Rekemeier, 39, of Fanwood, told LocalSource in an April 9 interview.
By the time she saw a doctor, her options were slim, with neither oral steroids nor a series of steroid injections in her ear drum having any effect.
But after finding it difficult to hear in loud social situations and struggling to communicate with her sons, Rekemeier decided to consult an ear, nose and throat doctor last fall to discuss her options.
That’s when she, along with Dr. Jed Kwartler of Summit Medical Group, looked into the Bonebridge Hearing Implant System, the world’s first bone conduction implant, which combines the benefits of intact skin with direct-drive stimulation of the bone for optimal sound.
Last month, Rekemeier became the first person in New Jersey and the New York metropolitan area to receive this type of hearing implant in a March 9 surgery, and had her implant activated for the first time April 9.
“I feel like I’ve been waiting for so long and I honestly can’t believe the day is finally here,” Rekemeier said at the activation, adding that she’d had no recovery issues since her surgery.
The Bonebridge is a partially implantable hearing system that consists of an internal implant and an externally worn audio processor, which is held in place above the implant by a magnet. The external processor receives sound and converts it into a signal that is transmitted through the skin to the internal implant. The internal implant, which is placed in the bone, converts the signal from the external processor into vibrations that are transmitted to the inner ear.
“A conventional hearing aid doesn’t work for single-sided deafness because it just amplifies sounds and there are no nerve endings left to pick up that sound,” Kwartler said at the appointment.
One of the major advantages of this type of implant is that the internal implant doesn’t show through the skin, according to Rekemeier and Kwartler.
“The biggest thing that patients have complained about with the prior systems is that it requires something that sticks out through the skin,” Kwartler said. “It’s just one additional thing that needs to be cared for and there’s a possibility of infection around the area.”
Kwartler said the implant has self-learning features and programs, and understands the environment it’s in, adapting accordingly to improve a patient’s hearing.
Rekemeier brought her sons, Cooper and Cole, 8 and 6 years old respectively, to the activation appointment. They were excited for their mother to hear again so they could play a game of telephone.
“Ice cream sundae,” Cooper whispered into her ear as she smiled, happy to hear the sound of his voice.
Rekemeier said she’s most looking forward to going to a concert and for people to walk on her right side again, which may seem small but was something Rekemeier took for granted for years before she lost her hearing.
“You never realize how debilitating one-sided deafness is until you’re in these certain situations,” she said. “It’s frustrating not only for me but for the people that I’m with. I’m looking forward to having somewhat of normal interactions with people.”
Kwartler was the first doctor in the state to deal with the Bonebridge implant and said that Summit Medical Group has already been discussing the option with other patients and scheduling more surgeries.
“Summit Medical Group is currently the leading hearing rehabilitation center in the state,” he said. “Bonebridge is just one more device in our armamentarium in things to offer our patients.”
After her activation, Rekemeier and her two boys were off to baseball practice, she said, just like any other regular Tuesday.