Anyone can struggle with hearing loss – especially later in life – but did you know that The Hulk struggled with his hearing his entire life up until having cochlear implant surgery? Television and movie star Lou Ferrigno recently told his story to Seasons in hopes that others who may be suffering from hearing loss will be inspired to explore whether cochlear implants might be an option for them.
“I am working with Cochlear [Americas] to raise awareness about cochlear implants and the different options that are available for those who are struggling with hearing loss,” Ferrigno explained. “Through this partnership, and sharing my story, I want to give hope that a better quality of life is possible.”
A barrier since childhood
Ferrigno never really got the opportunity to experience the full scope of hearing the way most people do. Even as a child, his hearing loss was profound—with the actor reporting a loss diagnosis of 85%. “I have been affected by hearing loss almost my entire life, starting as a toddler due to ear infections,” he explained. “And I had been relying on the use of hearing aids since the age of four.”
That didn’t stop the star of “The Incredible Hulk,” however. As a youth, he dedicated himself to learning how to understand others while making his own speech as clear as possible. “My father took me to the League for the Hard of Hearing growing up,” he explained. “I went twice a week after school and took the train from Brooklyn into New York City. This was a long train ride. I did this from 8 to 16 years old. It was hard because when my friends were having fun after school I was working endlessly on my hearing and speech.”
The actor further described the sacrifices he made: “I had to work very hard to balance school and reading lips. I had to go to two different schools at once. It was really hard on me, but my father and audiologists never gave up on me and over time I learned to read lips successfully.” All of that hard work clearly paid off—with Ferrigno going on to star in not just The Incredible Hulk franchise, but appearing in dozens of other film and television projects as well.
“I worked very hard to speak and hear with hearing aids for so long,” Ferrigno explained, “but I finally learned that with my profound hearing loss, the best hearing aid in the world was not going to give me the clarity in speech I needed to understand and participate in conversations.”
Regardless, Ferrigno wasn’t exactly enthused by the idea of getting an implant to improve his hearing at first. “Getting a cochlear implant requires surgery, which scared me.”
Luckily, The Hulk didn’t let his fear hold him back and gained confidence after watching someone else benefit from the procedure. “A close friend of mine did the research and made the decision to get a cochlear implant. Seeing him go through the process and how well he could hear following his activation, I felt confident I could – and should – do it too.”
The effects weren’t immediate, however. The actor described how – when the implant was first activated – everything sounded jumbled until he got used to it. Still, “It was a very emotional experience for me to just be able to hear again. Over time, those sounds sort out and you begin to hear words. For some recipients, your brain needs time to adjust so you begin to recognize sounds you were missing before.”
Which is why it’s important for those who have the surgery to practice distinguishing sounds. As Brian Kaplan, MD – the chairman of the department of otolaryngology and director of the Cochlear Implant Program at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center – explained to Seasons, “Cochlear [Americas] offers an app, called CoPilot, that can help improve hearing outcomes no matter how long you’ve had your implant. Research shows being actively involved in your hearing health can make a difference to your outcomes. CoPilot features information, tips, tools and activities – like listening and word recognition exercises – that help you practice hearing and communication skills.”
Ferrigno reports a dramatic improvement in his hearing since having the surgery—from a word discrimination rate of just 23% in his left ear prior to the surgery, to 63% at present and improving. “With my hearing aid and cochlear implant working together, I am at a word discrimination score of 83%! I also work on it and practice often with the app, which helps a lot.”
“I only wish I’d done it sooner!” he revealed to Seasons. “It’s like I’m reclaiming my life again.”
The Hulk’s advice
It’s never too late to improve your hearing, which is why Ferrigno is on a mission to encourage those with hearing loss – and especially the one in three people over the age of 65 with the condition – to see if the surgery is right for them.
“Since getting my cochlear implant, it’s all about opportunities instead of challenges. I’m a grandpa and I love listening to the baby sounds my grandkids make,” he raved. “I never heard those sounds with my own kids because I couldn’t. My cochlear implant has changed that. With my kids, I can better participate in conversations with them, and I’m excited about what the future holds in talking with and understanding my grandkids, too.”
If quality of life isn’t reason enough to consider the surgery, there is also the link between hearing loss and dementia. As Kaplan stated, “According to a recent study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 8% of dementia cases could be prevented by appropriately treating hearing loss.” He explained that this is due to less stimulation reaching the brain. “Untreated hearing loss also can cause people to withdraw from social situations and impact their balance, increasing their risk for falls, which can, of course, negatively impact someone already suffering from dementia.”
For more information – and to have your loved one evaluated to see if a cochlear implant is right for them – visit www.cochlear.com/us/en/connect/find-a-clinic.