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"It came out of nowhere," says Marge LaFrance, a 77-year-old Albert Lea, Minnesota, resident. "One day, I could hear normally and then the next day, the hearing in my left ear was greatly diminished."
Marge didn't have any health conditions that would have suggested hearing loss as a possibility. In December 2018, the mother of three grown boys noticed a crackling sound in her left ear overnight. In the morning, she realized that her husband's voice sounded muffled.
"It was very strange. It wasn't a softening of the sounds but a distortion of the sound," says Marge. "That part was the most frustrating. I kept thinking, 'How can I go on with this distortion?'"
Marge visited her primary care provider and an ear, nose and throat physician, and received prescriptions for antibiotics and a steroid. Over the next two months, the hearing in her left ear slowly returned to normal.
But the mystery of her hearing loss persisted. On July 3, 2019, Marge woke to a reduced hearing level again, but this time, it was in her right ear.
"I thought, 'Here I go again,'" she says.
That's when Marge's daughter-in-law, Elizabeth LaFrance, a nurse at Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea, suggested her mother-in-law be seen by a Mayo Clinic Ear, Nose & Throat (ENT) provider, also known as an otorhinolaryngologist.
The Mayo difference
Eric Moore, M.D., a Mayo Clinic ENT physician who sees patients at Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea, performed several tests to try to determine the source of her hearing loss and prescribed a steroid for Marge because it worked well on the hearing loss in her left ear. But it didn't work this time.
"Two days later, I went totally deaf in my right ear," says Marge.
An audiologist confirmed the complete loss of hearing in her right ear, and that is when Kathryn Van Abel, M.D., a Mayo Clinic ENT physician, recommended hyperbaric oxygen therapy to treat her hearing loss.
"During hyperbaric oxygen therapy, you breathe 100% oxygen at twice atmospheric pressure. Under these conditions, your lungs can gather more oxygen than would be possible breathing pure oxygen at normal air pressure," says Michael Ulrich, M.D., a Hyperbaric Medicine and Wound Care provider at Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea. "Your blood carries this oxygen throughout your body. This helps fight bacteria and stimulate the release of substances called growth factors and stem cells, which promote healing. New blood vessels can grow, and healing is stimulated."
According to Dr. Ulrich, other conditions treated with hyperbaric oxygen therapy include serious infections, bubbles of air in your blood vessels and wounds that won't heal as a result of diabetes or radiation injury. It is a well-established treatment for decompression sickness — a hazard of scuba diving.
"Hyperbaric oxygen therapy is most often used in wound care. But there had been success at Mayo Clinic in Rochester treating cases of sudden deafness," explains Dr. Ulrich. "Ms. LaFrance and her doctors decided to use the noninvasive treatment as part of her overall care plan."
At home in a tube
A Mayo Clinic patient may receive hyperbaric oxygen therapy in one of two settings:
- A unit designed for one person
In an individual, or monoplace, unit, you lie down on a table that slides into a clear plastic chamber.
- A room designed to accommodate several people
In a multiperson hyperbaric oxygen room, which usually looks like a large hospital room, you may sit or lie down. You may receive oxygen through a mask over your face or a lightweight, clear hood is placed over your head.
Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea is equipped with two monoplace units. Over the course of 20 treatments, Marge reclined in a personal chamber, breathing pure oxygen for 90 minutes a day. With a pillow positioned under her legs, she says that she was comfortable. Patients can read, sleep or watch TV during treatment. Marge laughingly notes that she watched a lot of HGTV.
Before each treatment, one of the wound care practitioners would examine Marge, recording her vital signs, examining each ear canal and ear drum, and confirming that she wasn't wearing anything with metal. The high concentration of oxygen has the potential to be flammable.
"I couldn't even wear hair spray," Marge recalls with a laugh. "No lotion, no belt, no rings. They were very thorough about making sure I was safe."
Over time, the hyperbaric oxygen treatment room became as familiar as her living room. Lisa Hunter, the hyperbaric safety coordinator in Albert Lea, or another staff member would stay in the room and operate the chamber control while Marge was receiving treatment.
"Lisa is very kind and ready to answer any questions," Marge says. "You go there 20 weekdays in a row, it's like a second home and they become a second family."
Steady hearing improvement
During the nearly monthlong regimen of oxygen therapy, Marge noticed her hearing returning.
"From total deafness to 92% hearing in my right ear," she reports. "I feel like I can hear just as well as I could before."
As her individualized treatment progressed, Marge remembers thinking, "This is getting better."
"Ms. LaFrance had encouraging progress during the hyperbaric oxygen therapy," says Dr. Ulrich. "The therapy can significantly improve patients' results and the quality of their lives. Our team is proud to offer this lifesaving treatment option to patients."
Understanding the hearing loss
Marge's care team is still working to understand what caused her sudden hearing loss.
"They did a MRI and ruled out a tumor, Meniere's disease or a side effect of any medication," Marge says.
Swimmer's ear, also known as otitis externa, wasn't the cause, and there aren't any physiological causes doctors can pinpoint as the source of her temporary deafness. But what Marge does know is where she can go if her hearing loss returns.
"What I've learned is how important it is to go in right away," Marge says. "If you let those little nerve ends die out, if you don't do something, they'll be gone forever."
She is appreciative of the role her daughter-in-law played and says having support helped her seek an early diagnosis.
"It was nice to have someone say, 'Go in right away.' I'm very grateful things turned out the way they did," she says.