Friday, July 11, 2014

Waterproof, but not entirely swimmable hearing aids

Julia loves to swim. We first put her tiny baby toes in the water when she was four months old and she's been a fearless diving ring seeking missile of a child ever since. Her first swimming lessons were already scheduled when her hearing loss was discovered. From that Water Tot program on, we've been removing her hearing aids for swimming and carefully protecting them around other sources of moisture.

Baby Julia's first "swim."

The Phonak Naida aids aren't quite as sensitive as the first pair of hearing aids Julia was prescribed. These ones are classified as "water resistant" which gives her the freedom of wearing them when her hair isn't completely dry. Any spray park, pool, or water balloon fight action has to be done unaided and communication becomes a major issue.

We've been looking forward to waterproof hearing aids. Technology improves quickly and we started seeing cochlear implant kids swimming with their devices last summer. We were jealous.

Then we started seeing ads for waterproof hearing aids.

Our audiologist advised that the claims of these new aids were perhaps a little exaggerated. Phonak Nios H20 hearing aids require a lot of maintenance after every exposure to water. I don't feel comfortable with my daughter swimming in her every day hearing aids. We needed to buy a second pair and had some difficulty figuring out how to do that for a pediatric patient.

So we waited.

This spring, a new round of research ensued as we anticipated swimming season. My husband found Siemens Aquaris aids with their IP 68 rating which he fully understands because he's an engineer. This time around we even found a pediatric audiologist that would fit Julia for the aids. So this spring we embarked on a six week trial with waterproof hearing aids.

Julia swimming in her Siemens Aquaris Hearing Aids on what just so happened to be the last
time they really worked properly.

We don't have them anymore.

From the beginning, the aids were plagued by frequent shut downs. We took them off of Julia and dried them, opened the battery door, and messed with them to get them to power on again. Sometimes they would be down for 15-20 minutes. On a swim trip with her Girl Scout troop, Julia took it upon herself to open the battery doors. In the water. She eventually decided she was happier without the hearing aids and swam for most of that day without them.

The audiologist (not our regular audiologist) indicated this was not normal performance for the instrument. We sent the aids back to Siemens for repairs. They replaced all of the guts and reported that there was evidence of water getting inside from opening the battery doors in the presence of water. Surprise! We started a new six week trial and were instructed to pat the vent on the bottom of the batter door to dry it. This would allow the battery to breath and allow the hearing aid to turn on again. There was to be no opening of battery doors with wet hands or in the pool.

This experience with all of the shutting down led to extensive research about hearing aid batteries by my husband, the resident scientist. He learned that the size 13 batteries we've been using for all these years are zinc air. This means the batteries need air to perform a reaction that creates the power needed to run hearing aids. We noticed for the first time ever that size 13 batteries have a little pin prick hole on the top. The sticker that comes on new batteries is keeping this hole closed, preserving the battery's power until it's ready for use. Some manufacturers recommend removing that sticker for a few minutes before putting the batteries in hearing aids. We've never had a problem with that, but a waterproof hearing aid isn't letting the battery breath when it's under water. Tim developed the hypothesis that these aids wouldn't shut down if we could use something other than a zinc air battery. He found rechargeable batteries that are nickel metal hydride and don't need air to work. We had hopes this would be our fix.

So we tried again, very carefully, to swim with these hearing aids. The audiologist told us that Siemens does not endorse, recommend, or support the use of any rechargeable batteries in these hearing aids. Tim put the rechargeables in and the hearing aids turned on and worked for a whole day on dry land.

Problem solved?

No. That first time was some kind of fluke because on subsequent attempts, the hearing aids wouldn't power on with the rechargeable batteries. At least not every time. It was intermittent.

So that was a bummer, but we got one day at the pool with zinc air batteries that was pure bliss. Everything worked perfectly. Julia could hear, it was relaxing and blissful and everything we dreamed it would be. The aids shut off about four times, but we patted the special spot dry with a towel and continued about our day.

And that was it. Our one great shining moment. Julia got to swim three more times with the waterproof hearing aids. Shutting down became the least of our worries as constant debilitating feedback and distorted sound became the chief complaints. We found ourselves spending more time messing with the hearing aids than having fun in the pool. Julia decided that she was better off with no hearing aids at all while swimming.

The Siemens Aquaris aids packed up and ready to be returned.

Now we wait again for a hearing aid that is not only waterproof but entirely swimmable. The Siemens Aquaris aids most certainly are waterproof. You can dunk them in water and they still work flawlessly. Julia just spends too much time under water (they advertise these to be used for 30 minutes of submersion up to 3 feet deep) and perhaps she would do better if there was a pair of waterproof aids available in what they call "super power." At Julia's level of hearing loss, these aids were at full gain in the high frequencies. That means they were turned up as loud as they could go. Perhaps that had something to do with the performance issues.

It was a disappointment, but we learned a lot. I feel confident things are moving in the right direction. If not, maybe Julia won't always be so fond of being under the water. She might some day conquer a swimming pool the way I do: jump in and then shoulders up for the rest of the day. These would be the perfect device for that kind of pool trip.