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ENT Specialist from UB Brings Sound to Hearing-Impaired Guatemalans

By Lois Baker

Release Date: March 24, 2009

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Seventeen hearing-impaired Guatemalan children and adults will have tubes implanted in their ears during two days in April by an ear-nose-and-throat specialist from the University at Buffalo's School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Mark Hoeplinger, M.D., a UB clinical instructor in otolaryngology, initially diagnosed the hearing problems in January during a week-long trip to two remote villages in the Guatemalan highlands, sponsored by a humanitarian organization called Faith in Practice.

Hoeplinger was part of a contingent of physicians, dentists, nurses, audiologists and pharmacists who, during their mission, treated nearly 2,300 people, many of whom never had seen a doctor.

The group flew into Guatemala City and was escorted to the villages by a military contingent; Guatemala is considered one of the most violent countries in Central America by the U.S. Department of State.

Hoeplinger saw more than 200 children and adults in the village clinics during this initial trip. While several needed surgery, many patients had healthy ear drums but their auditory nerves were defective. Hoeplinger had brought rudimentary hearing aids donated by the manufacturers to help those patients. Fitting them produced some dramatic results.

"A five-year-old named Miguel had a severely deteriorated auditory nerve that provided only a little sound, but his ear drums were healthy, so we fit him with a hearing aid," said Hoeplinger. "Distant music was wafting in through the open windows, and when the audiologist switched on the hearing aid, Miguel started dancing around the room to the music. We almost started crying."

Ten-year-old Ulysses provided another memorable story. "He had fractured his skull as a baby, which left him with a 70-percent hearing loss, and he never learned to speak." said Hoeplinger. "He, too, had healthy ear drums. We fit him with a hearing aid, and his face lit up. The audiologist started working with him, and within 30 minutes he could say 'hola' [hello in Spanish]."

"When we were packing up that night, Ulysses came running up to me, grabbed my arms, and cried 'Hola!' A patient like Ulysses," said Hoeplinger, "you can never forget him."

During the April return trip he will operate on the 17 patients that needed surgery and drain accumulated fluid from the middle ear that prevents sound signals from reaching the auditory nerve. He also will insert a shunt to allow continuous drainage.

"The fluid, of course, should never be there," said Hoeplinger. "Middle ear fluid, or 'effusion,' always causes hearing loss and often causes ear infections. This is particularly problematic in a child, because if it occurs at any early age, the hearing loss can arrest or retard the development of speech and language."

The surgeries will take place in a hospital in the historical city of Antigua, which is some distance from the villages. The patients will be bused to Antigua and housed before their surgeries and during recovery.

Hoeplinger wants to return to Guatemala again in winter 2010 to start an otolaryngology training program for Guatemalan doctors.

"The nearest ENT program is in Mexico City," he said. "Guatemala needs its own training program, and I hope to help get that started."

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