From patient to protege: Tackling deafness in the lab
Jacob Landis began losing his hearing when he was 2. By the time he was 8 he was becoming despondent.
Landis of Annapolis, Maryland, brought his story to Durham, speaking to the Southwest Durham Rotary Club and bringing a group of nearly 300 to the Durham Bulls game Thursday against the Columbus, Georgia, team.
Hearing aids worked for Landis for years, but as his hearing got worse they became ineffective. He can remember being able to hear the phone ring one day and the next seeing his younger brother and sister run to answer the phone because he had never heard it. He burst into tears.
“My hearing loss was deteriorating so quickly that my resiliency, my toughness, I couldn’t keep up with the emotional woe that was taking place,” he said.
Holding a conversation with his peers at the lunchroom table became more and more difficult, and participating in the classroom became impossible.
As he was withdrawing socially, academically and emotionally, he found hope in a new treatment called cochlear implant surgery that his father had discovered in a brochure.
The method involves implanting an electrode in the ear’s cochlea and attaching a second component, a sound processor, behind the ear. The outside component picks up the sounds and transmits a signal to the implant, which stimulates the cochlear nerve.
In 1999, at age 10, Landis had the procedure done at Johns Hopkins Hospital. At the time only about 5,000 of the surgeries had been done. Worldwide today about 300,000 have been completed.
“The cochlear implant gave me my son back,” said Landis’ father, Randy, who is accompanying him on a tour of minor league ballparks to raise awareness and money for the treatment. “It honestly gave me my boy back. It is wonderful to see the relationships that are now within the hearing loss community resulting from his events.”
After his surgery, Jacob Landis became an ambassador for cochlear implants. He met with families considering the surgery and spoke to engineering students at Johns Hopkins.
Dr. Howard Francis, who was at Johns Hopkins at the time of Landis’ surgery and is now a professor at Duke University Medical Center, said at the Rotary Club meeting that Landis had insights about the treatment that not even the professionals had.
Landis was able to continue in a mainstream school and went on to graduate magna cum laude from the University of Maryland. He works full time at Whole Foods Market in Annapolis.
Landis took his ambassador role even further in 2013, when at age 23 he combined his love of baseball and bicycling when he undertook a ride around the continent to visit all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums, a 10,500-mile ride. His goal was to raise awareness of cochlear implant surgery and raise funds for those who couldn’t otherwise afford the treatment.
“The excitement it generated in the hearing-loss community just kept me going,” Landis said. He stayed in homes of volunteers from the hearing loss community. A “chase car” followed his route with him, likely saving his life when a truck hit him on the final leg of his tour from Tampa to Miami. He went on to do shorter rides in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and has ridden nearly 20,000 miles. His efforts have raised $200,000 over the last five years and have helped fund 14 cochlear implant surgeries.
“The cochlear implant is literally the link that hearing-impaired children have to their hearing families and to opportunities in the hearing world,” said Francis, who has been preforming the surgery for 20 years. “It gives them access to speech sounds that they otherwise would not be able to hear with clarity, and enables them, therefore, to develop a level of language learning, a level of literacy, that they can take advantage of mainstream schools.”
The 2013 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, often a precursor to the Nobel Prize, went to three scientists who developed the cochlear implant, including Blake S. Wilson of Duke University.