Healthy Living in the North

Our People: Spotlight on Kyle Smith, Audiologist, Fort St. John

Kyle standing on a riverbank.

Kyle Smith, Audiologist in Fort St. John.

For Kyle Smith, it was his interest in language and communication that led him to a career in audiology. Growing up off the grid, he developed a love for the outdoors which made his move to Fort St. John with his fiancée a great fit! Before choosing audiology as a career, he completed a culinary degree and was a tree planter and self-professed “ski bum” before he decided to go back to school for creative writing. This ultimately led him to audiology.

May is Speech and Hearing Month, so I spoke with Kyle to learn a little more about him and what it’s like working as an audiologist!

In your own words, what does an audiologist do?

Audiology is a big field! It involves communication and hearing health, as well as balance. It includes what you might typically picture an audiologist doing — things like hearing tests and helping people with hearing devices. But it also includes things you might not picture, like occupational noise testing: walking around with a sound level meter and determining whether there’s a dangerous amount of sound or not. I’m part of a community health team in Fort St. John. Along with hearing tests, I also help little kids learn to use their ears. That could mean teaching families about communication strategies, or using hearing aids, or helping make homes and schools hearing-friendly places. Basically, I work on the hearing or input side of speech and language development.

Audiologists also help adults with balance disorders — these can be complicated to test! There’s a complex interaction between our inner ear, eyes, and the mechanical receptors in our feet and leg muscles. They work as a team to tell us if we’re standing upright or not. When these aren’t in balance with each other, people can get queasy and lose their balance.

Can you tell me about your career so far?

I’m pretty new to my role. I started in October 2018. Since I started school six years ago, the field has already changed in huge ways. There are little computers in hearing aids themselves. If you think about the advances in smart phones and cameras and how far that technology has come — hearing aids are similar. You can get hearing aids that are controlled by apps. From what I understand, the next generation may even connect to the internet!

How are speech and hearing related?

They’re very connected — basically they’re two sides of the same coin. We don’t learn speech on our own. Hearing our guardians’ voices as babies, we eventually make sense of the “blurbs” they’re saying as syllables and words and then sentences. We need practice to get good at it. It’s the turn taking and the conversation when we’re communicating that counts towards learning language. If someone isn’t getting input, they won’t understand that sounds have meaning and are connected to people moving their faces around. There are little cues — for example if someone is missing their “f’s” and “s’s,” that may indicate hearing loss, as in they may not have ever heard the sound to know it.

What kind of education is needed to be an audiologist?

In Canada, you need a master’s degree. I did a Master of Science in Audiology and Speech Sciences at the University of British Columbia. It takes a four year undergraduate degree and volunteer work to get in. The master’s program is about two to three years long — it depends if you do a thesis or go on to complete a doctorate afterwards. After school, you don’t stop learning! I’m going to a conference in May. Things are always changing and updating in the field, especially with the technology.

What does a regular day look like for you?

Every day looks a bit different which is one of the things I enjoy about my job! A lot of my day involves patient care. I mostly see kids aged nine months to 19. I try and determine what they can hear, and if they’re having difficulties, then I figure out where the break down is and how to fix it, so to speak. For some kids, I’m trying to figure out how they can hear better in the classroom or in daily life. I get to work with new and cool technology. There are some fun gadgets like bone conduction hearing aids; they vibrate the skull so that sound can be interpreted that way, rather than through the outer ear.

What’s your favourite or most rewarding part of your role?

I love those “Youtube moments” when a baby hears their parent’s voice for the first time. I also love being at the intersection of health care and cool new gadgets — I get to troubleshoot problems and fix things in real time which I enjoy. I also love helping kids access the sounds and conversation around them so they can keep up with their hearing peers. Hearing loss can really isolate us from people.

What sort of collaboration is there in the audiology field?

I’d like to give a shout out to the BC Early Hearing Program. They’re a global leader in the detection of hearing loss in newborns, with amazing follow through to coordinating medical or technological interventions when needed. In a recent national survey on early hearing detection and intervention, all the different provincial programs were ranked and BC was a shining star!

I work closely with the BC Early Hearing Program, mostly with kids aged nine months to five years. If they’ve had hearing loss, we work in tandem to coordinate services, whether that’s getting funding for devices or using a team approach to get a speech pathologist, or sign language instruction for deaf infants born to hearing parents, if they choose that route.

How are kids screened for hearing loss?

Just about every newborn baby is screened at birth. If there’s risk factors identified, then they’re followed up and checked on. When kids are school-aged, they do a Kindergarten screening and language assessment. There’s more information on the NH Hearing Program website.

How can someone see an audiologist?

Seeing a public health audiologist requires a referral. These can come from a variety of sources depending on the concerns and the community:

  • Registered nurses and allied health professionals
  • Doctors and medical specialists
  • Child development centres
  • Teachers of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in the school districts

Learn more

Haylee Seiter

About Haylee Seiter

Haylee is a communications advisor for Public and Population Health. She grew up in Prince George and is proud to call Northern BC home. During university she found her passion for health promotions by volunteering with the Canadian Cancer Society and became interested in marketing through the UNBC JDC West team. When she's not dreaming up communications strategies, she can be found cycling with the Wheelin Warriors or spending time with family and friends. (NH Blog Admin)

Share

Beware the noisy toy

Baby with toy

Do you know how loud your kids’ toys are? A few simple steps can help protect their hearing health!

I have seen many an adult with hearing loss due to excessive noise exposure. In my current role as a pediatric audiologist, I am more likely to see hearing problems due to an ear infection than to noise damage. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible, though.

The Canada Consumer Product Safety Act has a section on Toy Regulations. In it, they suggest that: “A toy must not make or emit noise of more than 100 decibels (dB) when measured at the distance that the toy would ordinarily be from the ear of the child who is using it.” One hundred decibels, though, is pretty darn loud!

Worksafe BC counsels, as do many safe workplace organizations, that at noise levels of 85 dB, an employer needs to provide proper hearing protection for their staff. Audiologists in both Canada and the US would agree this should also apply to toys. Granted, children may not play with that same toy for 8 hours (the length of an average workday); it’s more than likely that after about 10 minutes their parent tends to direct them to another, quieter, activity. But even these short playtimes with loud toys can be unsafe: Worksafe BC also counsels that workers can only be exposed to 100 dB for a period of 15 minutes before that noise becomes hazardous to hearing health.

Toy manufacturers are not required to specify the decibel output of their product, so how would a parent or well-meaning relative know? To put it into perspective: a gas-powered lawn mower is about 100 dB. So is a subway train entering the station. However, in neither case is the listener’s head as close to the sound as a child’s ear can be to a toy, or a teenager’s to an iPod. It stands to reason: the closer a sound is to our ears, the louder it is.

As parents don’t usually have sound level meters in their homes, what can they do?

Here are a few pointers:

  • Try before you buy. Listen to the toy, keeping in mind how close children will hold it to their ears. If you find it uncomfortably loud, it’s too loud for your child.
  • Is there a volume limiter, off switch, or battery compartment? You can always shut it off or remove the batteries. In the case of an iPod, iPhone, and/or iPad, a parent can access the volume limiter, reduce it, and lock it. Your teen may not be impressed, but their hearing health is protected – at least from the iDevice.
  • Depending on the size of the toy, put clear tape over the speaker. It will still make noise, but not as loud. If you’re crafty enough, your child may not even realize it’s there.

Interested in more information?

The Sight & Hearing Association, based out of Minnesota, provides an Annual Noisy Toys List. They use 85 dB as their upper limit, and a list can be provided to anyone who requests it!

Laura Curran

About Laura Curran

An audiologist at the Terrace Health Unit, Laura was born and raised in Nova Scotia but has made the trek to Terrace twice in her career - most recently in 2014, as she found she missed the beauty of the area. She started out in private practice for a national hearing aid dispenser and then moved into research before finding her main passion: Clinical Pediatric Audiology. When not working, Laura enjoys crafting, quilting, and camping with her husband.

Share

Talk spots

Adult and child outside

What are your family’s talk spots?

What is a “talk spot”?

A talk spot is literally a spot to talk to someone. The idea behind talk spots is to remind people of times and places where it is ideal to be present in the moment and communicate with those around us. We get to the spot and it’s our incoming reminder: time to stop and talk!

Why do we need designated talk spots to remind us to stop and talk?

We live in a busy world that is driven by technology. We have a million things to do and are constantly distracted by screens, incoming texts, phone calls, and emails demanding our attention. More and more of our communication is happening via technology and there is less face to face conversation. All of these things can prevent us from recognizing the communication opportunities that are right in front of us.

Where can my talk spots be?

Here are a few examples of talk spots I suggest:

  • The table: Mealtimes are natural opportunities for conversation. You are sitting face to face and looking at each other, which is ideal for communication. Mealtimes provide opportunities to expand on your child’s vocabulary. You can label the food items (e.g., apple), describe the food (e.g., hot, cold, soft, crunchy), and talk about actions at mealtime (e.g., pouring the milk, cutting the meat). You can chat about what will be happening that day or what happened that day.
  • The car: When you are driving, you are forced to sit and slow down. It gives us the time to talk with our children and wait for a response. Slowing down and waiting are important elements for language development. Driving also provides new vocabulary opportunities: you can talk about the objects you see (e.g., garbage truck, hospital, school, dog, snow), the places you are going (e.g., preschool), and the people you are going to see (e.g., grandma).
  • Waiting rooms: You are waiting anyway, so why not put away the phone and talk? Talk about what is happening in the waiting room (e.g., “we are waiting for our turn”, “that boy is sitting and waiting, too”). Talk about what is going to happen in the appointment (e.g., “the dentist is going to look in your mouth”).
  • The bath: Baths need to happen and naturally create face to face interaction. At bath time, you can talk about body parts (e.g., feet, toes) and use action words (e.g., wash, rinse, splash, pour).
  • Change time / getting dressed: Talking when you are changing your child can help distract you and your little one from the task at hand :) It is a time to use descriptive language, clothing vocabulary (e.g., shirt on, pants on) or use sequencing terms (e.g., first we put your diaper on, then your shirt, your pants go on last). It is a time to offer choices (e.g., “red shirt or blue shirt?”). Offering choices can promote language development. You are providing a model of the words you would like your child to imitate, making it easier for them to repeat. Choices also help children recognize that words have power and give children a sense of self control.
  • The grocery store: The store provides many opportunities for vocabulary growth. You can talk about the different food items or describe their attributes (e.g., red apple or green apple), you can talk about quantity concepts (e.g., one cabbage, a few pears). You can also work on social skills, like saying “hi”/”bye” to the cashier.
  • Bedtime: A wonderful time to sit and talk with your child. It is also a good time to read to your child. Books expose children to new words and provide repetition, which is key for learning language.

The month of May is Speech and Hearing Month. It is a time to raise awareness about the importance of communication. As the Speech-Language and Audiology Canada website states: “The ability to speak, hear, and be heard is more vital to our everyday lives than most of us realize.”

Get out there and try some of the suggested talk spots! Try coming up with your own talk spots that may be better suited for your family. Have fun being in the moment, talking and connecting! Remember that to learn to use language, children need to have someone to talk to.

Trisha Stowe

About Trisha Stowe

Trisha was born and raised in the north. She started her career with Northern Health as a Speech Language Pathologist in 2012. In her current role, she supports children who have communication difficulties and their families. In her spare time, she loves exploring the north and everything it has to offer with her family.

Share

To swab or not to swab

Cotton swabs

Earwax is supposed to be there and is the very substance nature designed to protect our ears. Trying to remove it with cotton swabs is ineffectual and can cause serious damage to the eardrum.

“Hi Johnny,” I say to the child in my office chair. “I’m just going to take a peek to see if you have any bananas in your ears.” Johnny looks at me as if to say, “gee, this lady’s crazy” and the look of apprehension that had been on his face has now shifted to his mother’s. “I’m sorry,” she says, “They must be quite dirty. I haven’t had a chance to clean them.” My next question may set the tone for the remainder of the appointment. The last thing a mother wants to do is harm her child and I certainly don’t want to give her the impression I think she will, but I need to know. “How do you clean them?” I ask.

We’ve all heard it said: nothing smaller than your elbow should go into your ear. The manufacturers of the cotton swab warn against putting this device into the ear canal, yet it is well known that the main reason it is purchased is to clean the wax (cerumen) out of one’s ears – despite the fact that it is quite ineffectual at doing so. There is nothing on the end of a swab to grab and pull at a chunk of wax. If there is a substantial amount of wax in the ear, the swab is only going to push wax further into the ear canal (best case scenario). Worst case scenario: an accidental move can push the swab straight into the danger zone and possibly damage the eardrum significantly.

It’s true that many people report using swabs daily without incident. People report speeding in automobiles without incident as well. But any emergency doctor can tell you they’ve treated accident victims who are injured due to excessive speed, just like any doctor or audiologist can report they’ve seen a damaged eardrum due to an attempt to remove wax.

All of this really misses the point: the wax is supposed to be there and is the very substance nature designed to protect our ears. It is created and lives in the outer part of the ear canal and its purpose is to moisturize and keep things like dust, dirt, and bugs from getting deep into the ear. It constantly migrates outwards where it dries and falls out of the ear, often unnoticed by us.

There are instances, however, where a lot of wax can be problematic. Some people’s ears naturally produce more wax than others. Also, hearing aids do not allow for wax’s natural migration out of the ear, trapping it in the canal and eventually rendering the hearing aid ineffective. If this happens, then indeed the cerumen must be removed. But here’s the important part: it must be removed by a trained medical professional. Before removing the wax, they will use equipment that allows them to see into the ear canal properly, making sure there are no contraindications to removing the wax.

And I can assure you they will not be using cotton swabs!

… or candles. But perhaps that’s a topic for another day!

Laura Curran

About Laura Curran

An audiologist at the Terrace Health Unit, Laura was born and raised in Nova Scotia but has made the trek to Terrace twice in her career - most recently in 2014, as she found she missed the beauty of the area. She started out in private practice for a national hearing aid dispenser and then moved into research before finding her main passion: Clinical Pediatric Audiology. When not working, Laura enjoys crafting, quilting, and camping with her husband.

Share