A piece of 1990s technology is going above and beyond to give people with hearing loss, like Marlene Sultiff, what she's described as a second chance to experience life fully again. After Sultiff lost her hearing following a brain surgery, she was looking for a way back to commincating the way she always had.
Sultiff explained that the pandemic exasberated some isolating effects of hearing loss, as more people covered their mouths, further blocking communication, and friends and family receded in lockdowns.
Her saving grace? Cochlear implants.
A tiny pocket of homes in Rochester's Susan B. Anthony neighborhood is Sutliff's little slice of heaven.
"I love having this property in this neighborhood," she explained. "And this house was built by Obadiah Bush."
At 79-years-old, she's restoring this beloved home. It's a project that's been her way of keeping busy after having a brain aneurysm in 2001.
"And one, very few lucky people - only about 12% - survived; I survived," Sutliff cheered.
But that's when she started losing her hearing. Though hearing aids helped for a time, by 2019, she basically couldn't hear at all. In January 2020, she decided to consider cochlear implants, but then the pandemic happened.
"People that were really sick needed the space and my ears could wait," she said.
We all know the pandemic was difficult, but for Sutliff, her feelings of loneliness were overwhelming.
"I felt burdensome. And because I don't have a partner who can act as my ears. I did that," she said. "Like, I couldn't really ask my children to go with me everywhere to be my ears... they have lives."
A survey from the Hearing Loss Association of America and Cochlear Americas showed 95% of people with hearing loss, like Sutliff, claim masks blocked communication.
"Trying to read facial expressions or your lips forget that that just didn't work at all," admitted Sutliff.
In the meantime, she participated in a University of Rochester study on depression. She was told to write her life story. submitting two pages twice a month.
"That took me to almost the surgery. So when it was really isolating, I could sit down and write and think about not being alone," she added.
Finally, a year later on January 6, 2021, Sutliff finally had the surgery.
"So there's the implant portion underneath the skin, and so that stays. And then there's an external processor of some sort that people wear when in their waking hours. And that basically sends the sound to the implant. It's really cool. Yeah, so that comes on and off," explained Dr. Lisa Lampson, an audiologist at St. Joseph's Health in Syracuse.
According to Dr. Lampson, hearing aids basically just amplify sound. The cochlear implant does more.
"It bypasses a lot of the parts of the ear and stimulates the nerve part of the ear directly," said the doctor.
When Sutliff's cochlear implant was activated a few weeks later, her hearing went from about 0% to 72% in a matter of seconds.
"I felt like it was a new Dream Land. It was just incredible!" exclaimed Sutliff.
Now, with 90% hearing, Sutliff says she no longer feels "left out of life" and hopes her story inspires others.
"Take the chance of life because the world needs you and wants you," she said with a smile.