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VA Telehealth helps 97-year-old Veteran hear again

female veteran smiling holding portrait

Photo by William Bunce, visual information specialist. Dorothy Hartley holds a photo from the day she arrived in Hawaii with other Navy WAVES in 1945 during World War II.

Monday, October 23, 2017

They turned on Dorothy Hartley’s device and waited. After a few seconds had passed, the 97-year-old Navy Veteran’s eyes suddenly lit up.

“I hear her,” she said. “I hear.”

For the first time in what felt like decades, Hartley heard a familiar sound in her new earpieces: the voice of her daughter who was speaking to Hartley through a wireless mini microphone from down the hall at the Key West VA Outpatient Clinic. Dr. Erica Dombrowsky, audiologist, and Pattianne Miller, Telehealth technician, had just fitted Hartley with new hearing aid equipment and were both touched at her reaction to hearing her daughter’s voice again.

“She just kind of looked up. Then she was just smiling so much it look like it hurt,” Miller said. “It was the best. It gives you goose bumps, and I think everybody just teared up. It’s just so nice to see her happy that she could hear her daughter’s voice.”

“[This] is why I do my job,” Dombrowsky said. “It just made me so happy because we’ve been trying really hard; she’s been trying very hard.”

Before receiving her new hearing aid equipment in early 2017, Hartley had been using hearing aid devices for years. Some were helpful at times, but most fell short of her expectations. She needed help—and to her relief, she had finally found it. Thanks to cutting-edge VA technologies called Telehealth, new hearing aid equipment and support from her friends at VA, Hartley found a solution that is finally working for her.


Video produced by William Bunce, visual information specialist

“I can’t even swim”

Hartley was born in 1919 in Iowa, where she grew up and worked on a family farm. In 1944, she decided to join the U.S. Navy after a conversation with her sister about career choices.

“My sister told me she was joining the convent. I said if you’re going to the convent, I’m joining the Navy,” she said. “I don’t know why I joined the Navy. I can’t even swim. I still can’t.”

Joining the ranks of the Navy Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services or WAVES during World War II would take Hartley to Norfolk, Virginia, where she served as a truck driver. After one of her supervisors noticed she had the potential to do more, Hartley was retested and reassigned as a gunnery instructor in Hawaii in 1945. In her new role, she trained Seamen to operate .50-caliber machine gun turrets, identify enemy planes, determine aircraft speed, and fire at and hit air targets. The two years Hartley spent working around “big guns” would be life changing, but they would also have an impact on her hearing later in life.

“I lost my hearing … with all the gunneries,” Hartley said. “They were shooting. I think that’s where my hearing went.”

“She [Hartley] has a pretty significant hearing loss,” Dombrowsky said. “She has a lot of distortion or discrimination issues as well, so getting speech clarity, which has always been obviously one of her biggest concerns, has been something of an issue.”

While hearing loss can occur during the aging process, Dombrowsky says it is not guaranteed. She says hearing loss can develop in some people for a number of other reasons, and believes Hartley’s condition was the result of years spent around loud noises and artillery fire.

“Just because someone is older doesn't mean that they're necessarily going to have hearing loss, or if they do, that they're going to have such a significant amount,” Dombrowsky said. “For sure, the big guns definitely played a role in how she's hearing now.”

According to the VA Office of Research & Development, hearing loss and tinnitus are the two most common service-connected conditions among American Veterans. Hearing loss can develop in Veterans exposed to blasts. Hartley suffers from sensorineural hearing loss, which is caused by damage to the inner ear and auditory nerve. This type of damage is permanent, but can typically be helped by hearing aids.

five women in Navy uniforms smiling

Submitted photo: Hartley, bottom right, and four Navy WAVES from Iowa arrive at the headquarters of the 11th Naval District for reassignment to Naval Air Stations at Honolulu and at Puuene, Maui in 1945.

“They can treat you just as good here at home”

When receiving new hearing aids, patients often have to schedule several office visits with their audiologist, so the devices can be tuned correctly. This process can be frustrating for some patients and can take up a lot of their time.

“The thing that a lot of people don’t understand about hearing loss and hearing aids is there’s an adaptation period to it, and it’s not one and done,” Dombrowsky said. “It does require multiple visits for some patients.”

In the past, Veterans with hearing aids in the Key West area had to make the 160-mile trek (each way) to the Bruce W. Carter VA Medical Center in downtown Miami to have their devices adjusted. Since the Telehealth technology was added at the Key West clinic around 2012, Veterans like Hartley no longer have to make the long journey to Miami. They can now meet with an audiologist through a screen and have their hearing aids adjusted at the Key West clinic.

“That’s one of the reasons it’s so great that we have the ability to see her [Hartley] in Key West; because she wouldn’t have been able to make the trips that were necessary to get her finally hearing as well as she is now,” Dombrowsky said.

Hartley remembers having to make those long trips to Miami for her hearing aid adjustments.

“We used to go to Miami too, and that’s kinda out. They can treat you just as good here at home,” she said. “I think the VA in Key West is very good. They are very helpful, and it’s close at hand. I just couldn’t say enough about the VA.”

Telehealth now plays a big part in Hartley’s audiology care. She’s now comfortable with the experience of meeting with her provider through a screen for her hearing aid adjustments.

“She [Hartley] just comes to the clinic like she normally would, and we dial into audiology in Miami, and Dr. Dombrowsky comes on the TV, and she speaks to her as if she's in the room with her,” Miller said. “She's very comfortable with the whole process, but first and foremost, it does save her a trip back and forth.”

While Hartley still struggles with her hearing, she knows where to go for support. She has a message for her VA audiology team.

“It’s a big help. I had to put all my stuff on hold because I couldn’t hear anything. Now with this setup that Patti is working on, it works a lot better. I can hear, and I can see it, and I can feel it, so everything is working better. They’re all good people here. They do everything for you.”

She also has a message for her fellow Veterans about getting help early.

“If you can’t hear, you don’t know where you’re going to go or what to do. If you can hear, you can do wonders.”

woman sits in office looking at television monitor

Photo by William Bunce, visual information specialist. Hartley meets with Dombrowsky via Telehealth at the Key West VA Clinic.

Get help

Hartley is right. Getting help early is the best way to live a healthier life. The Miami VA Healthcare System offers walk-in Clinical Video Telehealth Audiology services at the Homestead VA Community Based Outpatient ClinicKey Largo VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic and the Key West VA Outpatient Clinic during the following times:

Veterans can also schedule Telehealth audiology appointments at all three clinics.

For more information about audiology services available at the Miami VA, visit the Miami VA Audiology Services page or call 305-575-3148. To learn more about how VA is using Clinical Video Telehealth nationwide to care for America’s Veterans, visit www.telehealth.va.gov.

Editor’s Note: This story was written before Hurricane Irma hit the Key West Area. Hartley is safe and doing well, and, thankfully, the hurricane did not damage her home. We wish her and her family the best.

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