Cochlear implant comes full circle for implant user

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A cochlear implant at age of 21 gave Chad Ruffin the gift of sound. Almost six years later, the second-year student at LSU School of Medicine in Shreveport is about to undertake research that could improve that gift for others.

Ruffin received a $34,000 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Research Training Fellowship for Medical Students. He will leave in July for a yearlong fellowship at the University of Washington in Seattle to research improvements in the way the cochlear implant conveys information back to the user.

"One part of the research will look at ways to help implant users in situations with music and noise," said the Centenary College graduate. "Secondly, I'm looking at how to reduce the variability of outcome for users."

Cochlear implants are hearing devices that compensate for damaged or non-working parts of the ear. They have helped more than 65,000 people worldwide in the past 20 years but have drawbacks.

In the normal process of hearing, vibrations from sound travel through the inner ear, where they are translated into electrical nerve impulses and sent to the auditory nerve and on to the brain. For a person who relies on a cochlear implant, the intricacies of the normal process are magnified under situations with a lot of background noise. The implant's processor must attempt to convey information about both foreground and background noise.

"That's why we (implant users) need a quiet environment," said Ruffin, whose experience with the implant not only led him to research but to medical school.

Ruffin was teaching high school biology in April 2003 when the course of his life changed.

"I just couldn't do it any more. The first year of medical school is easier than teaching," said Ruffin, whose speech is clear and easy to understand. "It wasn't that they couldn't understand me. I had a hard time understanding them, and they took advantage of the situation."

After his first year at medical school, a research opportunity led Ruffin to the University of Iowa and ultimately to his mentor, Dr. Jay T. Rubinstein, an expert in cochlear implants.

"I volunteered to do research in Iowa. I thought I'd go into something I'm interested in," said Ruffin, who was impressed by the work Rubinstein and his team was doing.

Rubinstein kept in touch with Ruffin. And when the research specialist moved to Seattle to become director of the Virginia Merrill Bloedel Hearing Research Center, he invited Ruffin to spend a year of research with him.

Ruffin spent Christmas vacation applying for grants and won two.

Because both grants are federally funded, guidelines required Ruffin to choose one. He turned down a $28,000 National Institutes of Health T32 Grant.

Ruffin's area of research is one he's personally interested in, but not necessarily one he will benefit from.

"The implant I have is an older generation than the one we'll do research on," he said. "To take out an implant is another surgery and a risk of degrading what hearing you already have. Like the old saying goes, a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush."

Ruffin's content for now.

"I consider this an opportunity of a lifetime."

By Mary Jimenez, Shreveport Times
 
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