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Jewish World Review Oct. 11, 2001 / 24 Tishrei, 5762

John H. Fund

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Will Rush Hear Again? New technology may make it possible -- PEOPLE who wonder how Rush Limbaugh became such a popular commentator and voice for conservatism often don't realize that he began his national radio show in 1988, just as Ronald Reagan was leaving office. There was a void created by Mr. Reagan's absence from the national stage, a hunger for simple, commonsense truths told in clear, optimistic language. Rush helped fill that void, so much so that by 1993 Ronald Reagan himself called Rush "the No. 1 voice for conservatism in this country."

Given Rush's prominence, it's natural that people all over America were shocked to learn this Monday that he has suffered a sudden loss of hearing so severe that he can't hear a conversation or any of his callers. It's appropriate that Rush chose to address his supporters and listeners directly. His heartfelt yet dignified announcement was reminiscent of Mr. Reagan's famous 1994 letter announcing he had Alzheimer's disease.

But even though Rush's announcement echoed Mr. Reagan's graceful acceptance of adversity, his listeners need not be mournful or despondent about his future. As a friend of his for nearly 15 years, I have always been convinced that Rush can accomplish just about anything he puts his mind and soul to. Indeed, Rush concluded his Monday remarks by saying "All I've lost is my ability to hear, but it doesn't mean I've lost my ability to communicate. Those are two different things, given the technologic advances we have in this country today."

Most people probably thought the advances that Rush was speaking of were the kind of computer software that would allow him to take calls from listeners. It can transform spoken words into on-screen text almost instantly and uses the same technology that allows live TV events to have nearly simultaneous closed-captioning.

But Rush also mentioned another technological innovation during his Monday announcement. He said he had been told to consider the possibility of getting a cochlear implant, which has had considerable success with many patients in allowing them to hear with the aid of semiconductors.

An example is my friend Bill Saracino, who runs the Parents Television Council in Los Angeles, which the comedian Steve Allen headed until his death last year. In September 1998, Bill lived in Sacramento, where he ran a political action committee. One night he noticed a ringing in his ears before he went to bed. The next morning he woke up completely deaf. He's the victim of an autoimmune disease, usually called Sudden Hearing Loss. At first he thought it was simply the effects of a bad cold. After a couple of days he knew better.

He was quickly put on a regimen of medicines and steroids. In about half of Sudden Hearing Loss cases, this treatment leads to the restoration of much of a patient's ability to process sound. But in Mr. Saracino's case, it did not. For the next seven months he went through what he calls his "Simon and Garfunkel period. . . . All I had was the sounds of silence." During that period he learned about the advances in cochlear implants.

The cochlear implant involves the insertion of a fiberoptic wire with 16 to 20 electrodes into the cochlea, the area in the inner ear containing the main hearing nerve. These electrodes receive signals from a small device carried by the patient. The signals allow the electrodes to stimulate the hearing nerve, thus replicating sounds for the brain.

Though the first implant took place 20 years ago, computer sophistication really started to appear in the early 1990s. Results from the implants vary, but for many patients they are nothing short of miraculous, essentially restoring hearing to the full "normal" range.

"In 1990, the implant's outside semiconductor receiver was the size of a cordless telephone," Mr. Saracino says. "By 1999, it was the size of a pager I could wear on my belt, and now there are models that are just a bit larger than a hearing aid that you can wear behind your ear."

In March 1999, Mr. Saracino received his implant; it took a month for his ear to heal enough to activate the device. For the first few days he found it difficult to process speech or TV broadcasts, but the clinic fine-tuned the device. After about three months, he had what he estimates is 85% to 90% of his hearing restored. Voices may sometimes seem metallic or tinny, and he can't appreciate music. But he says that's a small price to pay: "I feel incredibly blessed, and am an evangelist for this technology. Since it involves computer science as much as it does medicine, the devices continue to become more sophisticated and smaller all the time. At this rate, maybe we'll have a bionic ear someday."

Cochlear implants aren't for everyone, have varying results and are usually reserved for cases of total deafness because they are still experimental and involve surgery that affects the brain. But many patients lead a completely normal life. "I can do everything with the implant that I did before my deafness," Mr. Saracino says. "I take off the outside receiver to swim or sleep and that's about it."

The last time I saw Rush was at a dinner in late July in honor of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. At the time he showed no signs of any affliction, although I noticed he didn't take questions from the audience of House members and staffers. His message was simple: Conservatives should stick to their principles because they will never get any credit or benefit by selling them out. Rush has always been more interested in principle than partisanship. "His has always been an independent analysis," says Tony Blankley, former press secretary to Newt Gingrich. "When we strayed from what he judged the right path, he let us have it--thus often steadying our rudder."

Rush is now himself being steadied during his illness by a large circle, starting with his wife, Marta, and his brother, David, and extending to innumerable friends and supporters around the country. The voice of conservatism has always credited his audience with giving him the passion and desire to do his show for 15 hours a week. Now they are a major source of support for his battle against an illness I am sure he will either lick or transcend.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


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©2001, John H. Fund