PHOENIX -- It seems like the stuff of science fiction: restoring lost hearing invisibly, just like they did in the Bionic Woman TV show, years ago.
But as Patti Kirkpatrick showed us in Wednesday's 9pm Extra, the future is now. A valley woman has become one of the first to benefit from a hearing aid that actually becomes part of her.
Scottsdale resident Loriann Harnish recently became the first person in the southwest to receive a new implant that allows her to clearly hear and understand things she had been missing since childhood.
Harnish says she has what is called cookie cutter hearing loss. "I hear everything between the high tones and the low tones," she tells us. "But if it is a high pitch or a low pitch or it is right on the arch of either one, I can't get it. “
Harnish's hearing was damaged by a high fever when she was young. It was something even she didn't notice at first. “It was brought to my attention by my second grade teacher. She had a voice that had a very low pitch, and i didn't hear her: I couldn't understand .”
To compensate, she got her first hearing aids in junior high. And while they cleared up the hearing, they also got some strange looks. “People didn't really know what hearing aids were on a young person," she tells us. "So my classmates were like, that is a little strange.”
Harnish says neither her hearing loss nor the aids held her back, but she always wondered why there couldn't be something better, like the bionic ear in the popular 1970s TV Show, the Bionic Woman.
She thought that kind of technology was still several years off, until she started doing some research. "Little did I know, that it was now," Harnish says. "It was today.”
Harnish discovered there was an implantable device very similar to that fictional device in the show. It's made by Envoy Medical, called the Envoy Esteem.
At the University of Arizona, doctors began by grinding down a small part of bone behind her ear. Surgeons then implanted a sound processor and battery, then threaded two small wires to her inner ear.
An animation from Envoy describes how it works, “The Esteem senses the vibrations off the incus and turns them into electrical signals, which are sent to the sound processor to be adjusted for your specific hearing needs.”
Doctors like those at the University of Arizona need special training to implant the devices, and patients must have at least some hearing for them to work.
Harnish says the device has made a huge difference for her. She can now enjoy everything from the sound of her piano, to the rustle of water in in a fountain. "I can't wait to hear what is next, “she says. "And now in 2013, I have the whole world in front of me that i can hear again. “
Currently, the implant is not covered by most insurance plans in Arizona. However.that could change as the procedure becomes more common.
You can find more information about the Envoy Esteem on the company's website.