Roanoke Doctor Suffers From Same Ailment as His Patients

Aug 6, 2014

Dr. Geoffrey Harter.

As baby boomers age, many are losing their hearing.  It might be scary to think you’ll never again be able to understand a conversation or enjoy a loved one’s laughter. One Roanoke ear, nose, and throat doctor knows exactly how his patients feel.

“I have trouble in background noise situations.  I have trouble with women’s and children’s voices. 

Geoffrey Harter wears hearing aids.

“I have difficulty picking out, if I’m in a situation like in the Parish Hall after church, if you’re trying to talk to somebody with the background going, I have a very difficult time picking out sounds.”

Dr. Harter is also an Ear, Nose, and Throat Specialist at Jefferson Surgical Clinic in Roanoke. 

“So it’s a combination of loss of hearing plus a loss of the ability to understand.”

He blames genetics for his profound hearing loss.

“My parents both had very bad hearing losses and I had a situation, after I’d been in practice for probably about eight years or so, one fall I had a sudden, rapid decrease in my hearing.”

The 57-year-old says people typically start losing their hearing in the 60s or 70s but his hearing loss began in his 20s just as he was starting his medical career.

“Of course, this was brought up by my wife who, a few years after we got married, was mentioning to me that I certainly had a significant problem.  And, sort of being a typical guy, I was putting it off.  I actually had ringing in my ears for several years prior to this and I knew very well that ringing in the ears was typically a sign of hearing loss, but I didn’t pursue it.  And then after I’d been in practice for several years, I had my hearing checked and found I had a pretty significant hearing loss.”

And that’s caused more than a few problems at home.

“For example, we have an alarm system in the house.  And this was just a few months ago, I didn’t have my hearing aids in, and I inadvertently set off the alarm system.  I never heard it.  And my wife was yelling downstairs trying to get my attention and I couldn’t figure out why she was so upset.”

”But you could hear your wife yelling downstairs.”

“Yes, absolutely, different frequency.”

Harter’s hearing loss affects the mid and upper ranges of the hearing spectrum.  For instance, he can’t hear the timer on the microwave or oven and his TV set has the closed caption turned on.  He hears well enough to attend church, but movies and plays are out of the question.

“I can’t understand people if I go to a play well, even with the amplification system.  Movies are disasters because movies have background music of course and noise.  I went to one with my daughter last year and she had to explain to me what was happening.” 

He prided himself on being a surgeon, taking out tonsils and putting tubes in children’s ears.  But a few years ago, he decided to step aside.

“I was having more and more difficulty understanding people and of course, in the environment in the operating room, people wearing masks, so I don’t get those cues.  Plus the fact if I’m operating, I’m not looking at somebody’s mouth when they’re talking to me anyway.  But I had some situations when I had difficulty understanding the anesthesiologist and other people in the room and I fortunately never had any problems but I was afraid that I might encounter a problem and so I pulled myself out a little over two years ago.”

Harter still sees patients, but now he refers them to his colleagues for surgery.  He’s up front about his hearing loss and says patients are relieved to know he understands what they’re going through.  Harter says as people live longer, they’re having problems hearing, but also understanding and processing sounds, and that causes people to isolate themselves from society. 

“And they’re finding also that this helps contribute to dementia.  We don’t think that it’s a cause necessarily, but it certainly contributes to dementia because you’re no longer getting that input.”

He says much progress has been made when it comes to hearing aids.  The old analog ones were effective only in limited environments.

“With the digitally programmable hearing aids, you have almost infinitely adjustable hearing aids, so you can have them set for various environments.”

He says with the right hearing aids, patients can resume their everyday activities with almost no limitations.