Guadalupe “Lupe” Frias started running when she was just a little girl, and for the next eight decades — until very recently — it was a sport at which she excelled.
An unexplained sudden deafness in Frias’ right ear robbed the 86-year-old grandmother of her balance — and thus, her ability to compete in 5k and 10k races.
But a special technology, which uses her good ear to hear for both sides, might allow Frias to run again.
“Now, I start walking and trying to run a little,” Frias said. “But I used to run almost 6 miles every day.”
Originally from Mexico, Frias moved to Laramie in 1999, falling in love with the small, flat city.
“I like to walk, and I can go everywhere,” she said.
Frias took up running seriously again when her children began to move out and she found herself with more free time. She said she started running a quarter-mile at a time and worked her way up — “3, 4, 5, 6 miles” — until she could run 10k races, which are about 6.28 miles.
“I used to do the mile in 10 minutes,” she said. “So, 3 miles in 30 minutes, 6 miles in 60 minutes.”
After being hospitalized for a possibly unrelated infection, Frias completely lost her hearing — but only on the right side. While head trauma or stroke can cause sudden deafness in one ear, Frias’ ear, nose and throat doctor, Paul Johnson, said her case was mysterious.
“People sometimes, with viral infections, will have decreased hearing or sometimes people that have taken medications that are ototoxic — or injurious to the ear — you can have decreased hearing, but usually we see that on both sides,” Johnson said. “So, for her to completely lose her hearing on one side, without an obvious explanation, is very uncommon.”
The damage to her ear also affects her vestibular system — a sensory system that coordinates movement with balance. Together with vision and other inputs — such as the weight on one’s feet — the vestibular system is central to balancing and vital for activities such as running.
Frias was forced to give up her lifelong passion for running, until she came into contact with Dr. Johnson.
The experience changed her opinion of hospitals.
“I was never in the hospital all my life,” Frias said. “I had six children and all were born in the house. I was so afraid to come to the hospital when I was so sick. But everybody was so nice. Now, I’m not afraid.”
Roughly eight years ago, Johnson became the first surgeon in Wyoming to give a patient an osseointegrated temporal bone implant — a titanium appliance attached directly to the skull, just behind the right ear. Frias became the first Ivinson Memorial Hospital patient to receive the implant since Johnson moved from Cheyenne to Laramie and became IMH’s only ENT doctor in August.
A special hearing aid — managed and adjusted by IMH audiologist Amy Weaver — snaps onto the implant and completes the bone anchored hearing system.
With the system in place, Frias has the distinct sensation that she is hearing from both ears again.
“That picks up the noise from her deaf ear, vibrates — imperceptible to her — vibrates the bone and so that transmits it to her good ear,” Johnson said. “So, in essence, her good ear is hearing out of both sides of her head.”
To adjust the hearing aid’s setting, Frias sat in Weaver’s office, with a wire connecting the device on Frias’ head to the audiologist’s computer.
“What we do is program it for what her hearing thresholds are in her good ear,” Weaver said. “It’s kind of been a learning process for me, because we haven’t had these done ever before until now.”
Thanks to Johnson and Weaver, Frias is walking without difficulty and working to regain the running skills she has lived without for about one year.
“The ability to hear is so important and we take it for granted until it’s taken away from you,” Johnson said. “And to be able to give that back to someone — particularly someone who is as active and socially aware as (Frias) is — is just a joy.”
Hearing again, balancing again, Frias said she is preparing for the challenging Bull Canyon Run in Santa Maria, California — a 5k and 10k race which happens annually in May.
With about one more month to prepare, Frias said she intends to at least walk the course.
“I hope I can run the 3 miles,” she said. “It’s so hard (but) I used to do it.”