FRANKLIN – Justin Ely was born with single-sided deafness. For 44 years he has grown accustomed to hearing only through his right ear, never hearing so much as a peep in his left — until this past spring.
He's now living life is stereo, and it's all thanks to Dr. Elizabeth Welch — and his teeth.
Welch, an audiologist with Hearing Services of Franklin, fit Ely in March with a unique apparatus that is composed of two devices — one that fits over his ear and the other that is tucked into his mouth.
"It was amazing," said Ely, a Nashville resident. "There was all this sound that I wasn't hearing before, and it was much clearer and sharper. If someone comes up to me and starts talking on my left side, I (now) don't turn and walk away. If I'm at a bar and someone is on my left side, I don't have to move around to hear them."
SoundBite device sits on the patient's bad ear and another part fits on the patient's tooth in their mouth. Sound is transfered from the bad ear to vibrate the bone.
Welch's office, which is one of just a few medical practices in the region that offer the apparatus, called SoundBite Readers, has fit 18 patients with the device in the past six months.
"This is the coolest thing I've done in the last 10 years," Welch said.
Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2011 and produced by California-based Sonitus Medical, SoundBite Readers is a nonsurgical, removable, bone-conducting device. A small behind-the-ear unit is worn on the patient's impaired ear. A separate device — as small as a pill — is attached to the upper back teeth, on one side.
A microphone on the earpiece receives the signal and transmits the sound to the mouthpiece, which converts the sounds to vibrations in the teeth that are sent to the functioning ear through the bone structure.
"They say it's hearing through your teeth, but in actuality, you are hearing through your bones," Welch said.
To make sure patients are able to talk and eat normally while wearing the Soundbite device, a mold is taken of the patient's teeth for each fitting.
The technology works only for patients with single-sided deafness or those who have conductive hearing loss, where sound waves aren't picked up in one inner ear because of damage or blockage.
The technology provides patients with an option to invasive surgery or hearing aids, which can amplify ambient sounds and make hearing in crowded or noisy places difficult.
That's music to Brian Shelby's ears.
Shelby, a 51-year-old Franklin resident, woke up one Sunday morning in August 2010 with a continuous "white noise" sound ringing in his right ear. Tests determined that he isn't deaf in that ear, but his ability to hear lower frequencies is drastically impaired. Shelby still doesn't know the exact cause of his hearing loss.
"Hearing aids didn't really work for me," he said. "They magnified the white noise and my own voice in my ear. It made it worse."
After getting his SoundBite device on Valentine's Day, he hasn't alternated which side he sits on during business meetings.
"I was waiting for next big thing, the next innovation," he said.
Welch said that many insurance companies that don't cover the cost of hearing aids will cover the cost of SoundBite, since they view it as a prosthetic device.
Reach Bonnie Burch at 615-771-5421 and on Twitter @BonnieBurch_WAM.