Ear-Induced Torture: Maddening Noise, Everywhere

"It's difficult when your husband has something like this," his wife Cindy said. "It's difficult to know that he's suffering."

One evening McLeish sat down at his computer and Googled his symptoms. To his shock, the simple Internet search turned up a rare condition that matched his symptoms perfectly: Superior Canal Dehiscence or SCD.

Even more amazing, he learned that Dr. Lloyd Minor, the surgeon at Johns Hopkins Medical Center who originally discovered and described SCD in 1995, had also devised a surgical treatment for it. McLeish immediately made plans to have surgery on his left ear. During June of last year McLeish travelled to Baltimore.

The Cure

The human ear contains three canals filled with fluid. When we move, the fluid in the canals moves with us and signals the eyes to shift subtly. This helps us to maintain our balance, stand upright, and walk and run without falling over.

"They're like a gyroscope in an airplane and every time we move our head, even by a minute amount, these receptors tell our brain how the head is moving," Minor explained.

Superior Canal Dehiscence is a defect in the inner ear caused by the thinning of the bone that separates the superior canal from the brain. In the case of McLeish, the fluid in his ear, separated by only a thin membrane, touched his brain and transmitted all the sounds from his body right to his head.

When McLeish arrived in Baltimore, he endured a battery of tests to confirm the diagnosis, including a CT scan and an exam where copper wired contact lenses were placed on his eyes.

Once Minor and his colleague, Dr. John Carey, were certain that McLeish did in fact have SCD, they scheduled him for the microsurgery that might answer his prayers.

The day before the surgery, the medical team affixed electrodes to McLeish's face, creating a virtual map of his skull that would guide the surgeons through the operation. Once in the operating room, the doctors plugged the hole in McLeish's ear with tissue and bone taken from his skull.

In the post-operative ICU, McLeish's wife waited anxiously for her husband to stir from his anesthetia-induced sleep.

'I Got My Miracle'

When his eyes finally fluttered open, the first words out of his mouth were, "Will I be able to play the piano?" It was the punch line to the couple's favorite medical joke.

McLeish's recovery was surprisingly smooth.

"I said when I came here, if they gave me 50 percent reduction in my symptoms, it would have been good," he said, a week after his surgery. "I said 90 percent would be a miracle. I got 98 percent. It's better than I ever hoped. I got my miracle."

Eight months after he laid down his horn, and only four months after the operation, McLeish was able to return to his orchestra in Germany. When he finished his first concert in more than a year, he knew for sure that life had finally returned to normal.

"The noises are gone," he said. "It took me 23 years to find out what I had. In the future I hope that people can find it much sooner and get the relief I've gotten."

For more information about Superior Canal Dehiscence please visit the Vestibular Disorders Association and the Johns Hopkins Web site.

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