Sudden and severe unilateral hearing loss is uncommon, especially in young people. At any age, loss of hearing in one ear impairs communication, leading to feelings of isolation. It limits understanding of distant speech and of words directed at the non-hearing ear. The affected person may miss important parts of conversations, and feel ridiculed as a result of misunderstandings. In children and adolescents, the effect can be magnified, compromising social development and academic achievement.
When Nihal Uddin suffered sudden profound hearing loss in his left ear in November 2008, he was a student at the Michael E. DeBakey High School for Health Professions located in Houston’s Texas Medical Center. “I went to sleep and woke up the next morning unable to hear in my left ear,” he recalls. “I thought it was a temporary problem, that my hearing would come back in a few days. I waited and kept hoping, but nothing changed.”
The effect on Uddin’s life was dramatic. In the classroom, he had to move to a position directly in front of his teacher and devote more energy to trying to understand the lectures, the questions asked by other students and the dynamics of the class. “As a teenager, it’s hard to admit to your teachers and friends that you have a hearing loss. It helped that I was studying at a medically oriented high school. In general, my friends were supportive because they understood that hearing loss is a medical issue,” he says. “But it was difficult to participate fully in conversations and social activities.”
The condition also affected his family life. “If my mom called me from downstairs, I had a hard time hearing her, so my parents would get worried and come upstairs to make sure nothing was wrong. They knew my hearing was bad, but they also never knew for certain whether I had heard them or not.”
Uddin’s family was uninsured at the time he lost his hearing, and they didn’t seek help until August 2010 when he had coverage. Nearly two years had passed between the time he awakened with hearing loss and his appointment with Michael Altman, MD, a family practice specialist and associate professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School. Dr. Altman ordered a diagnostic MRI. When the results suggested sensorineural hearing loss, he referred Uddin to Nabil Al-Muhtaseb, MB, CHB, MS, CCC-A, director of UTHealth Audiology and an audiologist affiliated with Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital.
One of only a few physicians, who have become audiologists, Al-Muhtaseb’s medical training and experience has brought a new professional dimension to the UTHealth Audiology program. After earning his medical degree in 1979 at Alexandria University in Alexandria, Egypt, he held private-practice and academic medical positions in Jordan and Saudi Arabia before moving to Houston in the early 1990s. In 1993, he was awarded a master’s degree in clinical audiology from Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. Prior to joining Memorial Hermann and UTHealth, he held senior-level clinical audiology positions in Fort Worth and Houston, including positions at Baylor College of Medicine and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. He was recruited to UTHealth from Houston Eye Associates Hearing Centers, where he served as director, integrating hearing rehabilitation into a large, established ophthalmology practice. At Memorial Hermann and UTHealth, he leads a comprehensive audiology practice within the growing framework of the Department of Otorhinolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, headed by Martin J. Citardi, MD, FACS. UTHealth Audiology , under Al-Muhtaseb’s leadership, now offers a full spectrum of adult and pediatric diagnostic testing services (including electrophysiological testing and vestibular and balance assessments) as well as the hearing aid program.
Uddin was one of a handful of patients Al-Muhtaseb saw shortly after he assumed his new position in September 2010. “When I saw Nihal in October, he had profound hearing loss in the left ear,” he says. “Because he couldn’t localize sound, he had to look 360 degrees to find the source. When there was background noise, it encroached upon his ability to understand with his good ear. But we determined that he had residual hearing of about 10 percent. My operating principle in audiology, which is based on my medical training and experience, is to use all available methods to expand whatever function is left in the ear to its maximum possible capacity.”
Al-Muhtaseb worked with Uddin through January 2011 to find the type of hearing aid that provided the greatest benefit. “In the end, we settled on a very tiny, virtually invisible digital hearing aid,” he says. “As soon as we found the right technology and calibrated it to meet his needs, Nihal’s face lit up with a smile.”
“I couldn’t believe what I was missing,” says Uddin, who has a strong interest in medicine and will begin studies in biology this fall at the University of Houston. “I don’t mind wearing a hearing aid because it has improved my life. The main thing for me is that Dr. Nabil was amazing. He really understood what I was going through. Because of that, I consider him a major influence in my life. He told me my hearing wouldn’t be 100 percent in the left ear, and it’s not. But I can hear my mom calling from downstairs, and I can hear my friends even if they’re not standing directly in front of me. I’m living a pretty normal life.”
“There are many ways to improve hearing loss, including profound loss caused by nerve damage,” says Al-Muhtaseb, who now sees approximately 200 patients a month. “In my mind, there’s no one we can’t help to at least some degree. Hearing is vital to everyone, but it’s particularly important to infants, children and adolescents. Early correction can make the difference between a child or teenager who is equipped to learn and excel through good communication and social skills, and one who never reaches his or her full potential. It’s my goal to help everyone who comes to me realize their full potential.”