Nov 2019 AL.com
Jim Burks remembers the first time he realized he needed to do something about his hearing. His two-year-old granddaughter, Teala, called him “Granddaddy” for the first time, then repeated herself. “Did you not hear her?” his wife Patsy asked. He hadn’t heard her at all.
“The next day, I got tested and got hearing aids,” he says.
That was 27 years ago. And eventually, his hearing aids stopped working. He could hear sounds but couldn’t distinguish them and couldn’t understand speech, no matter how high the volume was turned. “I could not understand our pastor preaching on Sundays,” he says.
An active couple in their 80s, Jim and Patsy Burks of Hoover say their cochlear implants have been "a miracle."
He found himself withdrawing from his normal activities because he simply couldn’t interpret what other people were saying. It was extremely frustrating. “I would give a stupid answer to a question,” he says, and then he’d wince when he saw the expression on the other person’s face. “After a while, I wouldn’t even comment. I stopped going to men’s breakfast at Chick-fil-A, I stopped going to men’s bible study. I withdrew from any social contact.”
Now, nearly two years after getting cochlear implants, “It’s like I have a new life,” he says. “It’s the difference in night and day.” When a hearing aid is no longer beneficial, a cochlear implant is a good option for many patients. A cochlear implant is “an amazing device that helps give hearing back,” says Melody Mathews, an audiologist at The Kirklin Clinic of UAB Hospital. “By replacing the damaged portions of the hearing system, the implant gives back sounds and gives them the meaning they’re missing out on,” says Mathews, who helps thousands of these patients ranging in age from 12 months to 103 years old. "It gives them their life back.”
About three weeks after surgery, the patient meets with an audiologist to activate the device. “You have to retrain your brain to recognise the new digital signal going into the cochlea,” Jim says. “It’s a wonderful experience.”
Patsy remembers that, during that initial appointment with Mathews after Jim received his implants, the audiologist had her back to her husband and he said he could hear her shuffling some papers. “I started crying, and she did, too. You don’t realise what you’ve lost until you get it back.” Even though it takes a few months of therapy to reach optimal hearing, Jim noticed a difference right away. “The minute they turn it on, you hear things you haven’t heard in a long time, like birds chirping, the buzzer on the dryer, the alarm on the microwave. It’s absolutely amazing.”
Jim’s improvement was so dramatic that Patsy, who had worn hearing aids for 13 years, was inspired to get cochlear implants, too. Because she had been with him throughout his own journey of hearing loss, she recognised the signs in herself. “I was so tuned in to him that I didn’t wait as long as he did,” she says. She had surgery in August. Recently, she and Jim attended a funeral at their church. “I heard every single word everybody said,” she recalls. “At first, I thought our church had gotten a new sound system, but then I realised, ‘It’s me!’”
Patsy was a cheerleader at the University of Alabama in the 1950s, and when she attended her reunion in Tuscaloosa a few weeks ago she could comfortably talk to the current group of cheerleaders because she understood what they said. “It was fun because I felt like I was a part of the group,” she says. “You don’t realize until you’ve lost your hearing and gained it back what all you’ve missed out on. It’s almost like you die and come back to life.”
Patsy Burks, who recently received cochlear implants, meets with UAB audiologist Melody Mathews
The couple, who will celebrate their 37th wedding anniversary in December, are extremely active for their ages – he’s 80, and she’s 81. They have a blended family with five children between them, 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. “We’ve been very blessed with good health,” Patsy says. They live on 20 acres in Hoover, where Jim maintains 20 acres of land and takes care of their cows. Patsy works two days a week in the family business her parents started in the 1950s, Lighting and Lamp in Pelham. Her son now runs the lighting and electrical services company, where she does computer work and helps on the showroom floor.
Active members of Hunter Street Baptist Church, they mentor a group of young couples who “keep us young,” Jim says. “Now that we can understand what they’re saying, it will be much easier and better.” He teaches English as a second language classes to immigrants and instructs 15 to 18 students every week in reading and cursive writing.
Both Jim and Patsy have been involved for years with Big Oak Ranch in Gadsden, a home for abused, neglected and abandoned children, as relief house parents. Jim helped start the cattle program there – they now have 300 cows and feed all the children homegrown beef – and Patsy served on the board for 15 years, including two years as president of the auxiliary.
The Burkses enjoy spreading the word about cochlear implants among their peers at church and in their community. They’re the first people they know who have them.“We feel like pioneers in our circle of friends,” Patsy says. Their advice: Don’t wait, and don’t be afraid of technology. “If we didn’t have iPhones, we would be lost,” says Patsy. “Technology controls what goes on with our implants.”
Their two-year-old great-grandson visited from Arizona recently, and Patsy says she and Jim both easily understood him. “We didn’t have to say, ‘What did he say?’” she says. “We’re just so thankful. It is a miracle.” And his mother, Teala – the granddaughter who inspired Jim to get hearing aids the day after he couldn’t hear her say “Granddaddy” – sent Patsy a text after their visit telling her “how wonderful it was to be able to talk to you both and carry on a real conversation that you both could hear and contribute to. So thankful for the implant surgeries and to have a newfound relationship with my grandparents as an adult.” “I must say our hearts are full with thankfulness,” Patsy says. "Every day seems to be a ‘wow’ moment since these implants.”