'It will get better': York County boy competes in climbing thanks to cochlear implant
Grayson Wimmer’s world was turned upside down after he got COVID-19 in 2020.
While many children might develop lingering symptoms like a lack of taste or smell, Grayson, then 10, had an unusual reaction.
"A few weeks after getting sick, I felt a pop in my left ear, became dizzy and lost my hearing in that ear," Grayson said. "It was a huge shock."
In a matter of minutes, the Dallastown child's world changed forever — though he didn't know it at the time.
Grayson would soon trade fun hobbies like rock climbing for audiology, bloodwork and genetic tests. And Grayson, alongside his parents Becky and Greg, would learn of his official diagnosis: single-sided hearing loss due to COVID-19.
"When I learned that my hearing wasn’t going to come back, I didn’t know what to think," Grayson said via email. "I was upset and had a hard time focusing on anything.”
COVID-19's effect on sensory symptoms like taste and smell has been well documented. By contrast, hearing and balance symptoms have been reported but not thoroughly studied, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Hearing loss results from viral infections in the ear, but the effects of SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — on the ear remain "poorly understood," the NIH reported.
Grayson, now 12, caught COVID-19 while attending class at Dallastown Area Intermediate School. His parents, both teachers, agreed that if officials had taken safety precautions more seriously in school, the hearing loss likely would never have happened.
Despite those frustrations, Grayson's parents knew the past couldn't be changed. They moved forward to seek care.
They started at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where Grayson was able to try out a loaner bone-anchored hearing aid.
The device didn't quite meet his needs, however.
"By the time I got home from school at the end of the day, I was tired, irritable, and my conversations at school were suffering," Grayson said. "I also had a hard time rock climbing because I couldn’t hear my feet on the wall while climbing or hear my belayer."
A belayer is the person who controls the safety rope for a climber — making hearing their calls an essential aspect for safety.
Grayson started rock climbing around the age of 6, his father said.
Six years later, Grayson isn't letting anything slow him down. Although challenges finding the right listening device proved mentally and physically straining, Grayson pursued surgery for the Cochlear Nucleus 7 hearing implant.
"A decision like this doesn't come lightly — and is often pretty frightening for anyone, but especially for a child for this to happen so suddenly," Greg Wimmer said.
In February, Grayson received implantation surgery, followed by activation in March.
A cochlear implant is a surgically implanted medical device that treats hearing loss by replacing the function of damaged sensory hair cells inside the inner ear — bypassing the damaged portion and stimulating the auditory nerve, according to Kelly Barninger, clinical territory manager for Cochlear Americas.
A cochlear implant can be approved for children as young as 5 who have single-sided deafness. Additionally, the device is recommended for those who have a "severe to profound" sensorineural hearing loss in the affected ear, Barninger said via email.
"Hearing with both ears is important," Barninger added. "Research shows that hearing with two ears allows one to identify sounds both near and far, as well as those that occur 360 degrees around the head."
Contrary to what some might think, device implantation doesn't mean hearing comes back automatically. It takes a significant amount of effort and energy for an individual to work on retraining their brain to be able to hear again, Greg Wimmer said.
"My mindset shifted, and I was determined to get my hearing back," Grayson said. "During my most recent check-up, my audiology team was pleasantly surprised by my progress and said that I was three months ahead of expected outcomes. I was even able to go to climbing camp in West Virginia this summer and had a great time."
After Grayson lost hearing in his left ear, his parents found the local climbing scene very welcoming and accommodating.
"We were able to figure out ways to turn down music in the gym and for his coaches to be louder," Greg Wimmer said. "Also using rope communication like shaking the rope in certain ways."
What started as a once-a-week hobby for Grayson naturally progressed into a competitive outlook.
Last year, Grayson made it to USA Climbing’s Youth Divisional competition in bouldering and top rope — placing 10th in both in his age group in the six-state divisional area.
Grayson and his family faced many hurdles in the competitive rock climbing scene, mainly issues with his implant that could influence results of the competition, his father said.
During events, climbers aren't permitted devices that could give them an advantage to knowing the climbing routes ahead of time. And because Grayson's cochlear implant has Bluetooth capability, concerns grew that Grayson could gain an advantage.
Luckily for him and his family, Grayson was allowed to compete with his implant.
"There's a flashing light on the cochlear implant that flashes green when it's on, and it flashes blue when it's connected to a device," Greg Wimmer said. "Judges had to ensure that the light was green. They also had an official stand with me during the competition to ensure that I was not using my device to connect to the cochlear implant."
To Greg Wimmer, it was a temporary solution.
He said he feels that much education surrounding cochlear implant devices and how they help individuals wearing them still needs to be widely taught.
"Grayson is very passionate about rock climbing — and I'm sure there's people in his space that might question him having the implant," Greg Wimmer said.
One thing that Grayson's father learned throughout the process is that people with disabilities face many more personal challenges than he realized.
"Grayson has significant listening fatigue," Greg Wimmer said. "So on the first day of school today, he came home totally wiped out because his brain is working much harder to comprehend the same amount of hearing that other sets of ears are capable of doing."
At school, Grayson's teachers use a miniature microphone during classes. Grayson, who just started seventh grade at Dallastown Area Middle School, added that each of his teachers was patient and understanding.
"It was a difficult process at the beginning, because you really have to work hard at listening," he said. "People thought I could automatically hear right after getting my implant, but it doesn’t work like that. It takes time and practice."
Soon, Grayson will begin training for the next bouldering season, with local competitions beginning in mid-October.
He currently climbs with a team based in in Montgomery County.
"For other kids who have gotten a cochlear implant, I would encourage them to always keep wearing it," Grayson said. "It will get better."
— Reach Tina Locurto at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.