Gresham City Councilor David Widmark had a bad head cold the day he lost his hearing.
He had been going through the normal hearing loss that often arrives with age and time — but this was something much worse. In 2005, Widmark was driving over a mountain pass at high elevation when both of his eardrums burst. His hearing deteriorated in a second.
Specialists were unable to help remedy the damage, and with his hearing getting worse every year Widmark was faced with the possibility of no longer being able to serve his community. The inability to hear would severely hinder him as a councilor and as chairman emeritus of Home Forward's board of commissioners — both positions which rely on being able to communicate effectively with constituents and colleagues.
"Communication — especially listening — is one of the most important things an elected official does," said Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis.
Life became difficult for Widmark, and he found himself withdrawing from people and missing out on life. During some meetings he couldn't follow what was happening because of background noise. That lead to increased frustrations. He began facing questions of what happened, and whether he would ever get his hearing back.
"You go through a period of depression. Hearing loss has a big impact on your family," he said. "But I am an optimist so I decided to see what I could do."
Widmark was identified as a good candidate to receive cochlear implants, devices that provide solutions for those with severe hearing loss. The implants allowed him to hear once again.
Sense of sound
While most people are successful with hearing aids, which Widmark used as well, severe hearing loss requires a different solution. Rather than just amplifying sound, cochlear implants provide the sense of sound by directly stimulating the auditory nerve.
The implants consist of both an external and internal component. On the outside there is a microphone, speech processor and a transmitter, all of which is housed in a small unit that attaches to the head via magnets. The information is then sent to the internal part of the implant, which is located on the temporal bone. The sound signals are converted to electrical pulses which are then used to stimulate the auditory nerve deep within the inner ear.
The result is sound for those who otherwise would be unable to hear anything.
Widmark had surgery at Kaiser Permanente for his first cochlear implant on the right side in 2011. His left ear was still seeing results from a hearing aid. Then in March 2016, he received the implant on the left side because he had gone completely deaf in both ears. In both cases the surgery took a couple of hours, and a few weeks later the implants were activated.
"There is a learning process to be able to use the device; you have to be patient," Widmark said. "With the device things often sound like they are coming from far away, and you have to learn how to understand the sound."
The external devices are replaced every five years and are powered with batteries that last about three to four days. A remote control allows him to adjust the volume of the implants, and lets him choose from one of four modes — conversation, small group, large group and music.
Talking on the phone is still difficult, but the implants and a Bluetooth device make it simpler. When Widmark gets a call, his phone rings inside his head, and also hears the voice on the line through the implant. This is important for him because a lot of his day is spent communicating with people via his cellphone.
He recently became the first adult to upgrade to the latest model of cochlear implants, which are Kanso Sound Processors. They combine all the external portions into one package that fits via magnets on the side of his head. The best part is no more ear pieces, which was the most annoying aspect of his old implants.
"Through all this I had support from friends and family, which made a big difference," Widmark said.
Ear for public service
With his hearing back, Widmark, 69, could refocus on serving the community.
"Councilor Widmark has been a leader in the Gresham community for years," Bemis said. "Having worked with him before and after his cochlear implants, I can say with certainty they have helped him communicate more easily with residents, staff and other elected officials, which makes him an even more effective leader."
Widmark is serving his sixth term on City Council after being involved in Gresham politics since 1988.
He also is on the board of Home Forward, with the distinction of being the first chairman from East Multnomah County for that organization.
"His ability to hear all the important nuances from our constituents, residents and staff has allowed (Widmark) to be a strong leader for our Board of Commissioners," said Miki Herman, vice chairman of the board of commissioners for Home Forward.
Widmark has had to make some lifestyle changes, however.
"There are little things you don't think about and take for granted," Widmark said.
He now has a bed shaker for his alarm clock, which is also connected to the smoke detector because he doesn't sleep with his external receivers in at night.
Widmark also wears a dog tag that explains he has the implants, because if he is ever unable to respond it will prevent him from receiving something like an MRI, which is dangerous for those with cochlear implants.
But the most important change for Widmark was once again being able to hear his children and grandchildren.
"The technology is a miracle. It has given me a whole new lease on life," Widmark said. "If I can share how it's changed my life, then maybe I can help someone change theirs."