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Health, Science, Environment

Tinnitus rings the world

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 19, 2011 - At 6 a.m., this June morning already feels like 80 or more. Of course it will climb much higher in a month or two. Is it possible to be even more humid? Luckily some old friends are stopping by so we have an excuse if not a necessity to spend the afternoon at the river.

Nothing could be cooler. It seems we rarely go unless friends call. This morning other unexpected friends have already shown up, the cicadas. And not just any whirllybug, these reportedly represent the periodic 13-year variety who have taken over much of the Ozarks and undoubtedly other regions.

Billions of red-eyed friendly creepy crawlies flying everywhere like lost mini-drones. Our cabin on a ridge above the Jacks Fork slumbers in deep forest so the cicada concert begins at sunrise and plays almost 20 hours during these longest days of the summer. I can see how some find these creatures a total annoyance with constant loud humming becoming increasingly distracting if not upsetting.

Cathy says the cicadas' songs are not quite as high pitched as her tinnitus. She got it five years ago when we were helping build the cabin. She held some metal while our carpenter used a power saw to cut it. She had a cold, tried to cover her ears, but that wasn't enough.

"I hear that power saw in my mind just about every minute of every day. And night especially," Cathy often explains her malady to friends. "A high whine. Sometimes it's a little softer, usually it's loud. My brain fills any silence with high-pitched ringing. I can understand why some people with tinnitus have been driven to suicide.

"My Mother said it is my Cross to bear," Cathy explains the condition to me sometimes. Luckily we learned of Dr. Jay Picarillo of the Washington University School of Medicine who studies tinnitus and helps make available new technology to manage the condition. According to the American Tinnitus Association , more than "50 million Americans experience tinnitus. Of these, 12 milion have tinnitus which is severe enough to seek medical attention."

It sort of galls Cathy that last year I was diagnosed with tinnitus by the Veterans Administration. I have a lesser degree of constant ringing, but also hearing loss in one ear that may be due to an all-night firefight in Vietnam about 40 years ago. The 10 percent disability payment should cover Internet at the cabin and a cell phone, too, Cathy said, looking on the bright side.

Several carpenter and veteran friends also have tinnitus. Most learn to live with it, but say it can be damned annoying.

Cathy joined the national tinnitus association to learn more about the condition. Early on she visited several physicians in the Ozarks and St. Louis who told her nothing could be done and gave her some 10-year-old articles to read. Her mother's advice was better than what these lazy quacks had to say.

There's a lot going on with tinnitus research. You can find all kinds of helpful stuff on line. The VA is funding research projects because so many soldiers are coming back from the Middle East with painful hearing loss. Now Cathy wears a special device that plays back relaxing music tuned to the frequencies damaged in her eardrums by the accident. Every few months she has been checking in with audiologist Diane Dudey at the WUSTL medical school to see how the treatment is working.

She listens to the same four 50-minute musical recordings several times a day and almost always when trying to fall asleep. Signing up for this treatment cost $5,000 up front. Cathy inherited more than enough from her parents to cover the bill. Nevertheless this daughter of a German farm girl from Little Tavern Creek, Mo., was reluctant to spend money on herself.

She knows that her mother would want her to go for it. You don't have to bear all the weight of your Cross all the time, she realizes, to be a good person. She is learning how to relax, not easy for a Type A, Phi Beta Kappa. Maybe biofeedback next.

For the first year or two often I had to hold her as she wept in her restlessness late at night and would repeat prayers or poems to help her settle down, let go and drift into dream. She has been a little like the pioneer women who sometimes were driven bonkers by all the work in living on or just crossing the great American prairie and facing the constant wind. Like these pioneer women, Cathy cannot easily escape her torment.

I wonder who holds the millions of veterans who have come back from our wars and cannot sleep? Modern warfare, just modern life with the beaucoup mechanical devices we all encounter on the streets every day, presents us humans with challenges, which can cause the shell shock of trench warfare. Cathy always has little foam ear plugs handy when out anywhere.

Of course we embrace all technology gives us and pray that science will come up with some kind of fix. Hearing once gone can rarely be repaired. Cathy has lost one of the greatest joys: silence, and little birds waking up the dawn.

The cicada invasion suggests at least we haven't killed off the natural world totally yet. Whippoorwills are becoming a rarity in much of the Ozarks, the Hellbender is about done for. But the cicadas are abundant enough to be served garlic-roasted at potlucks and a bunch of exoskeletons will make a nice pot of tea.

The carpenter who built our cabin, Bill Echols of Henryville, Mo., still works outside most everyday despite heat, bugs, snakes, bad dogs or whatever. He doesn't mind the cicadas' racket. "I think they are trying to tell us something," Bill said. "All your human worries and wars don't amount to squat in the grand scheme of the world."

Alex Primm is a freelance writer who specializes in Ozark oral history.

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