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‘Life-changing.’ Marinette County woman overcomes fear of surgery to be able to hear again

Published: Mar. 9, 2022 at 6:43 PM CST
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POUND, Wis. (WBAY) - “Everything. The ice maker on the (freezer)? I almost fell over the first time I heard it. It was like what is that?” exclaims Jaye P. Mueller.

Most people probably don’t think twice about hearing little noises like that around the house, but for Marinette County resident, Jaye P. Mueller, being able to hear the most mundane sounds in life has become a joy.

She spent nearly her entire life unable to hear.

That was until she found out about a surgery, now offered in the Green Bay area, that not only brought sound back to her, but changed nearly everything about her life.

Now Mueller has become a national advocate, urging the severely hearing impaired to consider cochlear implants.

From car horns to crying babies to blaring radios and ticking clocks, our world is full of noise.

To most of us, it’s just part of every day life, until that noise is no longer there.

“I couldn’t use the phone. I couldn’t listen to music.”

That’s what Mueller says her life was like living with profound hearing loss.

The last time she could hear well, without a hearing device, John F. Kennedy was president.

“I think I had my first hearing aid when I was in second grade, and my second hearing aid in fifth grade, and I just had to keep getting the most powerful ones they made,” she explains.

Before long, hearing aids didn’t work either.

To cope with her degenerative hearing loss, Mueller learned to read lips.

“Sitting in a bar, sometimes I’d be watching somebody across the bar and going, Oh! That’s the worst pickup line I’ve ever seen in my life!” she says, laughing.

“If I was in the other room, I’d have to come into the room, get in front of her so she could read lips, and that was the only way you could communicate,” says her husband, Tom Winters.

Despite those struggles, Mueller and Winters learned to get by, but crowds and noisy places were overwhelming.

“After a while you get so tired from trying to understand what were people were saying, amid all the noise, so it’s exhausting,” says Mueller.

When her audiologist told her cochlear implant surgery was now being performed in Green Bay, she decided to check it out.

“This is what the part looks like that goes under the skin, and there’s a very, very small electrode here,” says Dr. Michael Oldenburg, Prevea Health ear, nose and throat surgeon, holding up a very small device the size of a fingernail.

Mueller met with Dr. Oldenburg and Prevea Audiologist Lisa Ambrosius, ahead of her surgery.

Dr. Oldenburg has performed a lot of these surgeries and just completed his 100th cochlear implant surgery in Green Bay.

With no ability to understand any words, Mueller was the perfect candidate for that surgery.

“A surgeon surgically implants a little electrode into the inner ear, and that stimulates the nerve directly,” explains Ambrosius.

“It’s kind of a snail shape, and that’s actually what I place underneath the skin,” says Dr. Oldenburg.

Here’s how it works: the implant goes into the inner ear, called the cochlea, and stimulates the hearing nerve.

In people with severe hearing loss, the nerve often still works.

It’s usually the cells in the cochlea that don’t, so the implant bypasses those.

Mueller tells us she’d heard about cochlear implant surgery for years, but let travel and her fear of surgery keep her from considering it.

When she finally found out it was being done closer to home, in Green Bay, she reluctantly agreed, but only if they’d do both ears at once so she didn’t have to do surgery twice.

Her husband took video of Mueller in the hospital, the morning of her surgery.

“Today’s the day of your surgery. How are you feeling?” he asked her.

She responded, “Terrified and crying, and I don’t want to go!”

Mueller shared that video with us, knowing many other patients might feel the same way, but she wants them to know they’re not alone.

Once her outpatient surgery was complete, she waited three weeks as she began healing, unable to hear anything, before having the implants turned on.

Her husband again grabbed his camera and recorded that moment.

Ambrosius turned on the implants, asking, “So now you’re hearing out of both ears and it probably sounds a little different?” Mueller replies, “The voice. The voice sounds very different.”

But hearing as normal was not automatic.

“The sound that they hear afterwards is not like normal hearing. It’s very robotic at first,” explains Ambrosius.

“It was like... what is that noise?” recalls Mueller. “The clock! I could hear the clock ticking and I couldn’t tell what it was.”

She points to the clock in her living room where we are interviewing her. “I almost shot that clock a couple times, too!”

For months after her 2018 surgery, Mueller and Winters would just sit and listen to anything they heard around them, trying to train her brain to recognize new sounds.

“He said you’re going to have to learn to filter sounds out, ignore them,” says Mueller. “Birds! I walked out here and I was like, are birds always that noisy?!”

While it took getting used to, she says she’d never go back.

“If you couldn’t see more than 10 feet in front of you and you couldn’t see color, and you had an operation and now you had 20/20 vision and you could see in color, that’s how significantly different it is,” explains Mueller. “Amazing. It’s really life changing.”

They can enjoy the little things now, especially music.

“I have downloaded 400 songs on my phone. It’s my making up for 40 years of not hearing music, and I love it. I love it!” says Mueller.

She even loves hearing life’s not so blissful moments.

“Well we were having a little spat, and he walked down the steps, and when he got to the bottom of the steps, he made a comment,” says Mueller. “I was standing at the top of the steps and said, do you know I can hear now cause I could make out what he said!”

As they both laugh, Winters interrupts, “I said... you were meant to hear that!”

To use the cochlear implants, Mueller attaches a transmitter behind her ear, which magnetically connects to the receiver surgically placed under her skin.

“I have a pretty strong magnet on there. I’m very careful not to stick my head in the dryer!” she says, laughing again.

You can see Mueller is quite the character, and her medical team says her positive attitude played a huge role in her success.

She’s glad she did it, and now even coaches others to prepare for a different kind of life.

She tells those terrified of surgery it’s worth it not letting another moment tick by without hearing it, too.

She points to the clock on her living room wall again.

“That is actually my mother’s clock, which is why I didn’t shoot it! Yeah, I’m used to it.”

To learn more about cochlear implants, click here.

Sarah Thomsen talks about covering Jaye P. Mueller's life-changing surgery

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