Edward Melucci, a teacher from North Scituate, has spent his life learning how to live with hearing loss. In fifth grade he began reading lips. While in college he underwent major surgery to reverse the progression of the disease. During his years as a teacher of English and drama, he began having problems with his left ear and eventually his right, until his hearing degraded to the point where he was unable to communicate entirely. And then, at the age when most people are waiting to retire, Melucci was asked a very simple question: What are you waiting for?
The answer, it seems, was Rhode Island Hospital's audiology department.
"When I went in to see my primary care physician, the first thing he said was, 'What are you waiting for?' He said, 'Get yourself a hearing aid!'" said Melucci. "I remembered when I was a child they would take me to Rhode Island Hospital. I said, 'if I am going to do this, I am going to do this right.'"
Melucci had been down the road before, and was rightfully skeptical of its outcome. From a very young age, he had tried everything he could to cope with his progressive disability. As a child he had tubes inserted into his ears to battle excess fluid buildup. That corrected the problem until he went to college, where as a student at Villanova University, he began to lose the hearing in his right ear. It became so advanced that he sought the help of a nearby specialist, who promised to help. When Melucci came out of surgery he found that for the first time since he was a small boy, he could hear perfectly.
"It was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me," said Melucci.
Unfortunately, the results didn't stick. After graduating from Columbia University's graduate school with a master's degree, he moved back to Rhode Island to teach high school English and drama. Slowly, he lost almost all the hearing in his left ear. After several years and several unsuccessful procedures, he decided he would have to make do with just the right.
"I would group my kids right next to me because I was having problems with my left ear," said Melucci. "I still had no problem being in the classroom, but toward the last four or five years, I began to get very frustrated. I was losing a lot of hearing. The right ear began to go, too."
That frustration ultimately led him to Rhode Island Hospital's audiology department. By the time Melucci made the decision to be seen, he was profoundly deaf (unable to hear anything) in his right ear and extremely deaf in his left ear, and was having a lot of trouble with even the most basic forms of communication. He could hear only the loudest sounds, and in order to communicate, relied almost entirely on lip reading.
"Mr. Melucci is a sweet man, but when he first came in he was having an extremely hard time communicating," said Heather Taylor, Au.D. (doctor of audiology). "Even during the assessment, I was making as many accommodations as possible. I was sitting close to him, using a robust voice, in good lighting, taking my time so he could read my lips, and even getting basic history was difficult. He had a hard time understanding the basic questions. He was struggling."
Ultimately, after a series of tests, they decided that Melucci's hearing loss was advanced enough that he could be a candidate for a cochlear implant. The first step to determine whether or not that was an appropriate path was to fit Melucci for a hearing aid.
"They wanted to first see if the hearing aid could help me before doing anything else. She put it in my ear and I couldn't believe it," said Melucci. "She said it would take a few weeks to work, and it was instant. I couldn't believe what I was able to hear: sounds I hadn't heard for a long time."
For Melucci, the benefits of being able to hear again reach past sounds, speech and noise-they have had a profound effect on his sense of self.
"It gave me back my self confidence. Just talking with people-I didn't have to strain anymore, make off like I heard them if I couldn't lip read them. It opens up all the doors for you. There's no more hiding. This got me back to where I was," he said.
For Taylor, who now operates out of the new audiology facilities on Georgia Avenue in Providence, this kind of result is what every doctor hopes for.
"It's heartwarming to see. We're happy to do it," she said. "It makes my job worthwhile to see someone come in and have such success."
Melucci's only regret? That he didn't go to Rhode Island Hospital sooner.
"I should have done this 10, 15 years ago," he said. "My doctor said, 'Do it! Do it again.' I said, 'I've been that route,' but he said to do it again. The big difference was doing it here. Going to Rhode Island Hospital-I remember when my mother would take me as a child-I said that's the way I want to go. I gave it a shot. And this is where we are."