In Vietnam, Army Veteran Jerry Smith was a paratrooper. When he got home, he thought he would never be able to hear again.
“In the Infantry, machine guns, rifles, hand grenades, all those noises blew my hearing away,” he said. “Helicopters, artillery, everything happening at once, all day, every day. When I came home from Vietnam in ‘71, they didn’t know how to fix that kind of stuff.”
For years, Smith has been getting his health care at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System’s community-based outpatient clinic in Baton Rouge. He said the clinic has taken great care of him over the years.
“Before I started wearing hearing aids, I couldn’t hear you at all. Then after I got the first hearing aids, if there was background noise, it would block sounds and I couldn’t hear well.
“I just kinda got used to thinking it would always be half-way. You’re always asking, ‘What’d you say?’ and people kind of shied away from wanting to hold a conversation.”
Decided to give telehealth fitting a try
The Baton Rouge clinic has three audiologists working in-house and one audiologist who sees patients via telehealth. When hearing aids are prescribed, telehealth fittings are offered as an alternative to in-person fittings. Smith decided to give it a try.
“The audiology department has been awfully good to me. They’ve gone out of their way to be helpful.”
Upon arrival for a telehealth fitting, Veterans meet audiology health technician Audrey Fleet. First, Fleet makes sure Veterans are prepared for the fitting, looking into their ears to make sure they are clear and ready. Then she goes over the aids with the Veterans, giving a basic orientation on how to use them, take care of them and order supplies–and how to get in touch with the clinic for potential questions or problems. During orientation, Dr. Jessica Riggs remotes into the conversation on screen from her office in Mobile, Alabama. Once all three parties are in place, the telehealth fitting can begin.
Fleet places a collar on the Veteran’s neck and a small, flexible probe into the ear canal, which Riggs uses to perform real-ear measurements using readings of the sound the Veteran is receiving from the probe while listening to recorded speech samples.
Then Riggs remotely adjusts the sound levels of the hearing aid to match target amplification levels based on the Veteran’s hearing loss across the speech frequencies. This ensures the Veteran gets a just-right level on amplification–not too loud, not too quiet.
Smith said his telehealth fitting appointment with Fleet and Dr. Riggs was almost like being in the room with the audiologist. “Audrey was able to put me at ease. With the telehealth, the doctor was able to say, ‘You’re gonna hear some bells ringing for a minute as I adjust the aids’ and it was instantaneous.”
Fleet explained why she thinks tele-audiology is a good fit for Veterans of her clinic. “Most of the time they can get in a little sooner if they do a telehealth fitting,” she said. “The primary benefit is the time saved, less wait for an appointment. We’ve had very good survey results.”
Riggs agreed, “It’s neat! It cuts down on the Veterans’ wait times. I like it because I know they are getting their hearing aids faster, and I’m happy to help. Technology is always advancing!”
Grateful for the Baton Rouge hearing clinic
As technology has improved, so have Smith’s hearing aids. He said, “I’m hearing again. Before I started wearing hearing aids, I couldn’t hear you. Now I can hear. If I’m sitting out there in the hallway and you’re talking to me, I can hear what you said. These aids are fine-tuned to what I need.”
Having good hearing is very important to Smith. “I’m active in life. I do a lot of theater, I work backstage with lights and sounds, choreography and as a hobby. I love it. Once you’re able to hear what you’re doing after the work you put into it, it’s very satisfying.”
Smith said he’s grateful for the Baton Rouge hearing clinic and for how they have helped him.
“I’m hearing better now than I have in 20 years.”
Jamie Mobley is a Public Affairs Specialist at the New Orleans VA Medical Center.