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Sound of silence

Bismarck man overcomes sudden hearing loss
by reacting quickly
One morning Thomas Nemeth woke up totally deaf in his left ear.

Nemeth, 48, was puzzled by the suddenness of his hearing loss but attributed it to accumulated earwax, a problem he had experienced in the past. He flushed out the ear with hot water, but his hearing didn’t improve. So he went to Sanford North Walk-in Clinic thinking a doctor could better clean the wax out of his ear.

Instead, he learned he had sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL), a condition that can cause permanent deafness.

Realizing earwax wasn’t the culprit and suspecting Nemeth had a more serious problem, Dr. Robert Cusic, a board-certified doctor at the walk-in clinic, immediately referred Nemeth to Sanford Health audiologist Dr. Brady Ness. Dr. Ness conducted tests that confirmed SSHL. He
  Thomas Nemeth hearing loss was restored
Thomas Nemeth's temporary hearing loss was restored thanks to quick action by Sanford Health doctors. Nemeth, who curls on a regular basis, said losing part of his hearing for a short time has helped him appreciate the importance of good hearing.
walked with Nemeth to Sanford Health’s ear, nose and throat (ENT) department where Nemeth was prescribed an oral steroid treatment to begin that same day. Ten days later at a follow-up appointment, Nemeth had regained 70 percent of his hearing. When he returned a few weeks later, Nemeth was pleased to learn his hearing had returned to nearly 100 percent.

Dr. Thomas Coombe
Ear, Nose and Throat

Dr. Robert Cusic
Dr. Robert Cusic
Family medicine

Dr. Brady Ness
Dr. Brady Ness


“SSHL can happen randomly, and there’s no way to predict it. The earlier we intervene with treatment, the more likely we are to be successful,” Dr. Ness said. “Unfortunately, we’ve had people who have waited weeks thinking they have an ear infection or wax build-up and have experienced permanent hearing loss as a result. With early intervention, your chance of hearing levels returning to normal, as they did with Mr. Nemeth, are so much better.”

Dr. Thomas Coombe, a Sanford Health board-certified ENT doctor, said SSHL is usually due to a virus that attacks the nerve and causes nerve dysfunction.

“Most often, these patients come in complaining of a full feeling in the ear, ringing in the ear or hearing loss,” Dr. Coombe said. “Rarely, they may also experience some unsteadiness. We typically see several patients in a fairly short time with SSHL and then may not see any for a long time, which supports the theory that it’s likely caused by a virus.”

Nemeth says he’d prepared himself for a possible permanent hearing loss, and he really appreciates hearing well again. Good hearing plays an important role in many aspects of his life: in his role as a husband and selfdescribed “late-in-life” father who loves playing with his 5-year-old son, in his job as a chemist at the North Dakota Department of Health and on the ice rink where he curls three to four times a week.

“In curling, there’s a lot of communication on the ice with the sweepers communicating back and forth with each other and the person calling the game from the house, so it would be difficult to keep playing if I couldn’t hear well,” Nemeth said.

Approximately 4,000 Americans are diagnosed with SSHL each year. Oral medications or steroid injections are the common treatment, Dr. Coombe said, adding that the longer it takes for hearing to return, the less likely it is the patient will experience complete healing.

“Don’t mess around with sudden hearing loss,” Dr. Ness said. “Make an appointment with your primary care doctor right away if you experience sudden, unexplained hearing loss. Even if it does end up just being an ear infection, you’re better off not having taken a chance on losing your hearing permanently.” 

Hearing loss, whether it’s sudden or occurs over time, may be correctible and/or related to a medical condition that needs treatment. People who experience hearing loss should be evaluated by an audiologist before they purchase hearing aids, Dr. Ness said. Audiologists have advanced degrees and are extensively trained to evaluate hearing, using a wide variety of tests to determine the nature of the problem. Sanford Health Hearing Centers offer a full range of evaluation and treatment services for children and adults.

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