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Audiologist Annie Lee helps open the world to people with hearing loss | Business

audiologist annie lee

Audiologist Annie Lee in the hearing testing control room at the Hearing and Balance Center at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield.

PITTSFIELD — There are many causes of hearing loss, but once the degree of the loss and its effect on the individual have been discovered, it must be diagnosed and treated.

This is where the field of audiology comes in. In the Berkshires, audiologist Annie Lee of the Hearing & Balance Center at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield is one of the people who can determine the depth and the extent of this loss. It’s not easy work, but the Irvington, NY native finds it rewarding. We recently asked her how she does this job, the best and hardest parts of her job, her career goals, and how others can get involved in the field. That’s what she told us.

Q: What made you interested in becoming an audiologist?

A: I have two hearing-impaired parents, both of whom wear hearing aids, so I kind of got into the field that way. I had initially gone into education and through that I discovered speech therapy, so I became interested in that. Audiology is one of the prerequisites. It’s a bit of a roundabout way, but that’s how many people enter the field through speech therapy.

Q: Why do they take this route to enter audiology?

A: They are both under the umbrella of Communication Sciences and Disorders. Few people know about audiology. They begin to take elocution lessons and thus discover audiology.

audiologist annie lee looks through an otoscope

Audiologist Annie Lee uses an otoscope to perform an ear exam at the Hearing and Balance Center at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield.

Q: How do you become a hearing care professional?

A: It requires you to have an entry-level (bachelor’s degree) and then a doctorate in audiology, which is three years of graduate-level coursework and then a full year of externships.

Q: Is a doctorate in audiology similar to a doctorate in another academic field?

A: It’s a clinical doctorate. You need to find universities that offer this degree (Lee earned her Ph.D. in Audiology from Ohio University. She has an undergraduate degree in Child and Adolescent Development with a concentration on Young Children and Families from San Francisco State University).

Q: What does a hearing care professional do?

A: We can assess hearing and balance. For the listener, we do it throughout life. Some days I can test newborns and sometimes I test people well over 90, which is pretty exciting. We do the in-cab tests, which ask people to respond, but we also have ways to assess unresponsive people using objective measures, which we would do on a baby for example. (Objective measurements do not require patient participation. Hearing thresholds are measured by sensors placed on the head or behind the ears).

Q: How do you test someone’s hearing?

A: We frequently play specific tones for people. (They’re) frequency specific with pitch so we can play low frequency tones and high frequency tones and everything else to get a bigger picture not only if there’s hearing loss and how much there does it have it, but where is it. The most common we see is high frequency hearing loss, which means it would really affect speech clarity for people in relation to volume.

Another thing we do here at Berkshire Medical Center is auditory processing assessment. We look at what the brain does with sound and how it processes it, because there are disorders that could make it difficult for someone (if) they have an abnormality in the way their brain processes sound.

audiologist annie lee

Audiologist Annie Lee can be seen through a window in the soundproof hearing testing room at the Hearing and Balance Center at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield.

Q: Are you also involved in the placement of hearing aids?

A: We do both diagnosis and treatment here, so we make hearing aids here. For the vestibular tests (balance) we use special glasses. You can put them on a patient who has dizziness or vertigo and move their head in certain ways. We watch their eyes and see how they react to specific movements.

Q: Audiology as defined is a field that covers hearing, balance and related disorders. How does balance come into play?

A: Our organ of hearing is connected to our organ of balance. The two basically live together. We have a small basic organ called the cochlea (which is located behind the eardrum in the temporal part of the inner ear. It plays a key role in the sense of hearing, according to the National Library of Medicine). Then there are three semi-circular canals which are positioned to tell a body if it is moving and if it is moving in which direction. Each of the channels is oriented in a certain position to take account of a type of movement.

audiologist annie lee

Audiologist Annie Lee in the hearing testing control room at the Hearing and Balance Center at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield.

Q: So is there a link between hearing loss and loss of balance?

A: There can be. It depends on the (degree) of the hearing loss. Some people have hearing loss and their balance is not affected.

Q: What is the best part of your job?

A: For me, it’s that I work with children. I have a lot of pediatric patients. And, you never know what your day will look like. It can be very unpredictable but in a fun way.

Q: What is the hardest part of your job?

A: I think it helps people navigate the world of insurance and hearing aids. It’s really difficult. Some insurance companies do not consider hearing aids a medical necessity.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

A: Hearing loss can be quite isolating for many people. They told me they went to family functions and felt like they couldn’t hear anyone, so they felt isolated or cut off from the conversation. It’s really gratifying when they come back after being fitted and say, “I can hear my grandkids again” or “I went out to dinner with friends and really picked up the conversation.

audiologist annie lee

Audiologist Annie Lee in the hearing testing control room at the Hearing and Balance Center at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield.

Q: When is the best time to have your hearing tested?

A: I’ve always said that the best time to get your hearing tested isn’t when you’re struggling with hearing loss, but when you find you’re missing certain parts of words. The sooner you get tested, the better. Sudden hearing loss is rare.

Q: Is it difficult for people to accept that they lose their hearing?

A: I think it’s normal for people to be surprised by the extent of their hearing loss. We have to approach it very sensitively, as it is a hard pill for people to swallow when they find out they have hearing loss. There are many people who are relieved to hear their test result as it can explain a lot of the difficulties they encountered in their communications. It can kind of validate their struggles and give them meaning.

Q: What is your ultimate goal as an audiologist?

A: Right now, my ultimate goal is to provide Berkshire County residents with services they might not be able to get here. The vestibular program at our clinic is actually a new program (the vestibular system is a sensory system that is the primary contributor of balance and spatial orientation to coordinate movement with balance). We started it a little over a year ago. It’s something people used to drive pretty far to get. If I can bring more services to Pittsfield and prevent people from having to drive far for those services, my ultimate goal is to do so.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a hearing care professional?

A: I would say that in general audiologists are happy to talk to someone who is interested in the field and have someone come and see what they are doing. I have been contacted by family friends and told me that my niece or nephew is interested in becoming an audiologist and I am always happy to give them my number to contact me if they have any questions about applying to graduate schools or how to enter this field.

I would also tell them that it’s a great job for people who enjoy interacting with other people in their daily lives and helping others. As corny as it sounds, it’s really great to open up the world to someone who hasn’t heard it.

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