The Sound of Hope
A diagnosis changed the course of a young alumna’s life, and in return, her national research may reverse the seemed fate of many.
Dr. Amanda Ortmann is unforgettable. Her humble yet confident presence commands notice, even on the home campus of some of the world’s leading physicians. Her intelligence and charismatic personality is engaging, and her laugh is contagious. But what is even more remarkable is her ability to captivate not just by what she has to say, but how well she listens. But what more would you expect from a deaf audiologist?
Ortmann, a Missouri Baptist University alumna (’01), was diagnosed with severe to profound hearing loss after a bout of meningitis at the age of two. Her parents were determined to give Ortmann a chance to succeed in the hearing world, opting for lip reading, therapy and hearing aids instead of sign language.
Now years later, Ortmann works as an audiologist and postdoctoral research associate at Washington University School of Medicine to provide others an even greater chance to do the same.
Ortmann knew she wanted to become an audiologist at a young age, and used her time at Missouri Baptist University to prepare. In addition to coursework, Ortmann worked 20–30 hours a week as a hearing aid technician in a private doctor’s office all four years of college. In 2001, she graduated summa cum laude (highest honors) with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and communication. Ortmann strategically chose her programs to further her ability to become an excellent audiologist. “I knew mathematics would be important in the physics and measurements of hearing — and math interested me more than biology at the time.” Her communications degree built up the softer skills of audiology, but also prepared her for the life of a respected researcher.
“When I’m giving presentations on my research, I rely on my communications classes at MBU, and that gives me an edge,” said Ortmann.
And research is an integral part of Ortmann’s life. In fact, it is one of the reasons she pursued a Ph.D. after becoming an audiologist.
“When I was studying audiology at WashU, I knew I wanted to learn more,” reflected Ortmann. “I wanted to know the intricacies of how the ear works, and research ways to assist those with hearing loss.”
She then headed to the East Coast to pursue a doctorate degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Pittsburgh. There, she worked with the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System and exposed her to an emerging problem brought by the war: the combination of traumatic brain injuries and the loss of hearing. The extensive injuries of the soldiers took away not just the ability to hear sound, but the ability to process sounds.
This problem led Ortmann’s dissertation research on cochlear implants. These devices work directly with the brain and auditory nerve to process sound. Cochlear implants are beneficial to those with a small percentage of natural hearing left as well. Since the cochlear implant operates differently than a hearing aid, some problems are present including an irritating echo-effect. The cochlear implant doesn’t amplify sounds, but allows the cochlea to send auditory messages to the brain. The cochlear implant takes a split second longer to process and diminish confusing background noise than the natural ear if some level of hearing is still present.
While working on her dissertation, “The impact of spectrally asynchronous delay on the intelligibility of conversational speech,” her academic career was sideswiped when she was hit by a car while walking in the city of Pittsburgh.
She sustained significant injuries. This led her to take a semester off, and head home to St. Louis.
As Ortmann began to heal, she realized she needed a job to pay for her climbing medical bills. Fortunately, Washington University unconventionally hired Ortmann with an incomplete Ph.D., and the University of Pittsburgh allowed her to work on her dissertation at night in St. Louis. During this time, Ortmann saw patients as an audiologist and managed the adult clinic located at the Central Institute for the Deaf for five years. Each year, she tripled the amount of patients seen by the clinic. She also taught audiology doctorate students during their first, second and third years and mentored capstone projects. In 2012, Ortmann successfully defended her dissertation and received her Ph.D., but desperately desired to return to the lab.
She then was offered a post-doctorate research position at the University of Southern California. Ortmann researched a more precise methodology of measuring hearing capability through a grant provided by the National Institute for Health. Upon the completion of her research study, she returned home to St. Louis to work once again at Washington University.
Today, her research is intertwined with the neonatal intensive care unit at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. When infants are born, their senses are overwhelmed — especially hearing — and babies at low birth-rates and born prematurely are at greater risk for hearing impairment.
“In premature babies, the auditory nerve and auditory cortex are forming quickly,” said Ortmann. “Before birth, babies are in a safe and quiet environment for the synapses to form and grow and then at birth they are introduced to a world of noise.”
Her research will study if the noise of the NICU affects the health of an infant and whether growth of auditory synapses can be promoted by isolating sounds — a replication of the auditory environment inside the womb, where sounds are limited to a mother’s heartbeat and voice.
At Children’s Hospital, many of the infant patients seen are rushed by helicopter from rural hospitals. Ortmann’s research will also focus on the effect of loud noise from a helicopter on infants, and if reducing noise reduces hearing loss in the infant.
In addition, Ortmann is involved with a study with cochlear implant surgeries. As a surgeon inserts the implant in the pea-sized cochlea, Ortmann takes measurements to gauge the success of the surgeon. With these measurements, the surgery moves a step closer to a surgery performed by a robot — reducing human error and providing the utmost stability needed for the delicate procedure.
When Ortmann lost her hearing, a cochlear implant was in the testing phase, and not readably available like today. The technologies available today were merely dreams and in early stages of research when Ortmann was diagnosed at St. Louis’ Central Institute for the Deaf — the same building in which she works today.
Ortmann’s hearing loss allows her to connect with patients, and provide hope to combat fear.
“When my patients and their families are confronted with hearing loss, I’m able to relate,” said Ortmann. “They find it reassuring that I have been through these struggles, and believe me when I say, ‘It is going to be okay.’”
This is especially true as children diagnosed with hearing loss today have even more hope. Thanks to early intervention and scientific progress, the children Ortmann sees playing basketball in the Central Institute for the Deaf’s school gym are far more likely to fully engage with the hearing world by first grade. Comparatively, Ortmann was considered ahead of the curve by attending a class with hearing classmates in fourth grade nearly thirty years ago.
When Ortmann sees the children’s success, she and her coworkers take heart that all of the time and effort in research are paying off.
“We time our afternoon breaks to when school lets out and the students are running around and integrating with the world in a way that was improbable years ago,” said Ortmann. “Seeing these successes motivate me to continue to push further even during long, hard days in the lab.”
It’s such motivation from researchers — now academic peers — that gave Ortmann the ability to thrive in the hearing world. And now in return, her dedication to research and her patients provide a light of reassuring hope and inspiration to the deaf and hearing alike.
Originally published in the Winter Edition of MBU Magazine