Local teen's travel greatly reduced with new telehealth service

Life for a Prince George teen fitted with a special kind of hearing aid has just become notably easier - and a bit of medical history has been made in the process.

On Thursday, Lily Palmer, 13, was able to have her cochlear implants checked at University Hospital of Northern British Columbia.

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Normally, she would have had to make the 8 1/2-hour drive to Vancouver and meet face-to-face with an audiologist at the B.C. Children's Hospital.

But with the help of video conferencing technology, called telehealth, the audiologist was able to sit at a laptop at BCCH and take over the implant's programming software and make the adjustments from nearly 800 kilometres away.

It marked the launch of Canada's first ongoing remote clinical service for people with cochlear implants.

"A service like this for what already is an amazing technology is pretty cool," Lily's mother, Andrea said. "Lily basically plugs into software, (audiologist Raegan Bergstrom) can read her ears, as we call them, from Vancouver and do all the fundamental testing that she needs to do from a technological point of view."

Essentially an array of electrodes, a cochlear implant is place in the ear's cochlea. It bypasses the normal hearing process and, with the help of a magnet and a processor placed outside behind the ear, the patient can hear sounds digitally.

Instead of being deaf, the patient is simply hard of hearing.

Lily's implants were put in place when she was one year old and for the next two years she had to be brought down to Vancouver every two months to get them assessed.

"In her toddler years, it was a tonne of travel and we're lucky in that I have family in the Lower Mainland, we can stay with them," Andrea said. "But for an average family that doesn't, it's the gas, the food, the accommodation.

"When she was really little, we tried to fly a few times just because it's hard to drive with a baby for 8 1/2 hours. So telehealth, in this capacity is a huge saver."

Lily will still need to travel down to Vancouver once a year, but that's still down from the four trips a year she had been making. A key piece of the video conferencing is a clear picture to allow Lily to lip read while the outside processor is out - and it came in crystal clear on Wednesday.

The session was the culmination of more than a year of planning and testing.

"It's pretty awesome," Lily said during an interview with Lower Mainland media via the conferencing system. "I've never had a video chat this clear. I've face timed with my friends who live just a few minutes away and it's so glitchy and you guys are all the way in Vancouver and it's not glitchy at all. It's great."

Until she pulls back her hair, the implants are not at all noticeable.

Barring any serious bumps to the head, the internal implants remain in place for a lifetime. As for the external pieces, Lily is now on her fourth generation as the technology has improved.

With the help of a waterproof cover, she can swim. She also plays ringette and because she's had the implants since she was so young, she speaks without an accent.

Hearing in a crowd can still be a problem. She needs to pass around a mini-microphone to carry on a conversation. Her ringette coach also uses the microphone to tell her when to get on and off the ice.


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