Photos Cameron Flaisch

Sound stimulates, educates, encourages, and entertains. Good hearing opens a world of possibilities. Conversely, hearing loss isolates, frustrates, even infuriates. Many withdraw from society and retreat into a private existence because they can no longer hear clearly what is going on around them. Audiologist Dr. Sarah Merrell of Harbin Clinic Audiology Cartersville is on a personal mission to help prevent this from happening to people. 

She says, “An audiologist is a hearing and balance doctor. If you have a problem in these areas, we diagnose you to get you on a path to finding what you need, whether that’s hearing aids, cochlear implants, physical therapy, or surgery. We help narrow things down for the physicians, so the patient gets the best referral.”

A change of plans

Although Dr. Merrell has only been an audiologist for six years, she’s worked in the field in one way or the other for 21 years. “Originally, I wanted to do occupational therapy,” she says. “I wanted to work in the school system with kids with special needs. My mother used to do that when I was growing up, so I had a heart for it.” However, she began to rethink those goals when she got a job as an office manager for a neurotology and audiology group. There, she learned everything from the ground up: quoting and billing, front desk, paperwork, recording medical records, and doing the surgery schedule. “The audiologist I worked for back then trained me in doing miscellaneous hearing aid repairs. I would change tips or tubing on hearing aids. Or change batteries for patients with dexterity issues. Actually, I got interested in audiology doing that stuff, so I decided to go back to school.”  

 

Clarity and balance

Audiology deals with interrelated physical systems. Dr. Merrell says, “The balance system and the hearing system are very close to each other. The outer ear is the part of your ear that you can see. Inside, behind the eardrum, is a pocket of air—that’s where the three smallest bones in your body are—and that brings you to a membrane that attaches to the cochlea. That’s the inner ear, where the nerves start. The balance nerve, the hearing nerve, and the facial nerve are bundled close together in this area. A problem with one of these nerves (a tumor, for instance) can cause an issue with one of the other systems. If a patient has facial paralysis they will need to see a neurotologist.”

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What causes hearing loss?

When it comes to the causes of hearing loss, Dr. Merrell says, “The most common are family history, noise exposure, and old age.” General health can cause hearing loss. She says, “People with diabetes are at a higher risk. Also, people with thyroid disease, cardiac issues, and certain cancer treatments.” Nosie exposure is a major cause. “The carpet mills tend to have a lot of employees with noise exposure history.” She says that there are also viruses that can cause hearing loss. “The shingles virus can attack the hearing nerve.”

Dr. Sarah Merrell

An unpleasant surprise

Dr. Merrell says that hearing loss is a surprise to some of her patients; because it happened so gradually, they never noticed it. Some even lived in denial of it. “A patient might say, ‘Well, I don’t think I have a problem, but my husband is convinced I do.’ But after I ask a few questions, she may admit she does tend to turn the TV volume up too high or that she may miss parts of conversations in a restaurant that has a lot of background noise.” Hearing loss is usually a slow progression, so often family members notice it before the patient does.

Dr. Merrell explains that there are a few important things to look for regarding hearing loss. For one, difficulty hearing on a cell phone. Also, having difficulty hearing the details of words; they may complain that other people are mumbling. She says the background noise issue is often the first tell-tale sign of hearing loss. “It can become a problem long before hearing aids are needed.”

A call for common sense

Dr. Merrell cautions the public about the use of over-the-counter hearing aids. “Recently the FDA passed a rule that allows people to buy hearing aids without having a hearing test,” she says. Regarding these products, she urges people to be informed customers. She explains, “Some people perceive a hearing loss, but what they really have is a processing disorder, which manifests itself—or mimics—hearing loss. If they buy one of these hearing aids and use it improperly, they could accidentally cause real hearing loss.” Dr. Merrell recommends that if someone is considering buying one of these over-the-counter hearing aids that they get a hearing test first.”

Harbin Clinic has four audiologists: three in the Rome office and Dr. Merrell in Cartersville. There’s also a Harbin Clinic audiologist office in Calhoun, which is staffed by a doctor who commutes between it and the Rome office. Whatever the hearing of balance issues are, the people of Northwest Georgia can be assured that Harbin Clinic Audiology is there to help them face those challenges.

For more information, go to harbinclinic.com

has made a career in the creative fields, such as writing, textile design, illustration, cartooning and mural painting. He is a long-time resident of Rome, Georgia, where he and his wife, Janet, raised three wonderful children.