A shooting accident triggered bothersome tinnitus for 59-year-old Steve Crusinberry. Associated Audiologists helped Steve learn to manage his tinnitus using ear-level sound generators, daily meditation, journaling and concentration exercises. Now he’s “Steve 2.0” and living his best life!
At 59 years old, Steve Crusinberry is a self-described “type A” personality. Retired from the United States Army after 23 years, he’s now the Deputy Garrison Commander at Ft. Riley, Kan., a civilian position. During his military career, he has been exposed to loud noises and blasts, experiencing temporary ringing in his ears that has always gone away … until Aug. 19, 2020.
That’s when Steve was wrapping up a practice session at a firing range. “I decided to fire off one more round and forgot that I had removed my hearing protection,” Steve explained. “As soon as I squeezed the trigger, I realized something was wrong.”
Immediately, Steve began hearing a very loud, high-pitched “bing” that never stopped. Over the next few weeks, he went to see a number of doctors and audiologists in the Manhattan area who diagnosed him with tinnitus.
Tinnitus is usually caused by damage to the auditory system. It’s the perception of sound in the absence of an external sound source. It can take on any number of characteristics and is usually a sound that only the individual can hear.
Some people experience tinnitus that varies from soft to loud and from low to high pitched. Some describe their tinnitus as a buzzing, clicking, ringing, white noise, and/or roaring sound. Steve described his tinnitus as a very high-pitched sonar sound.
“Everyone told me it would probably go away, and that in the meantime, I would just have to learn to live with it,” Steve said.
Not satisfied with those answers, Steve decided to search the internet himself for more information. “After reading a bunch of stuff online, I realized my tinnitus might never go away, and I didn’t take that very well,” Steve admitted.
Fortunately, when he saw the Associated Audiologists team in Manhattan, they recognized how bothersome Steve’s tinnitus was, and recommended he see Susan Smittkamp, Au.D., Ph.D., an expert in tinnitus management who sees patients in the practice’s Shawnee Mission Clinic.
Steve scheduled an appointment with Dr. Smittkamp, but in the interim, his condition continued to decline.
“My emotional and mental health had really started to deteriorate at this point,” Steve said. “I hadn’t slept for months. I would fall into a bad state of sleep, then I would wake up and it would just be me and this very loud ‘bing’ that never stopped.”
To the world, Steve seemed fine. “I soldiered on and went to work. I didn’t let many people know what was going on inside me, but at that point, I had cried so many tinnitus tears, I was an absolute train wreck!” Steve admitted.
“I remember lying in bed one night and telling my wife, ‘I can’t go on anymore.’ I had a terrible sense of hopelessness and despair.”
Hope for Help
At Steve’s first appointment with Dr. Smittkamp in November 2020, he said he could barely talk, but he could listen.
“Right off the bat, Dr. Smittkamp gave me hope,” Steve said. “Her demeanor was very calming and she was confident if I followed the treatment plan, I would be OK.”
“Steve was extremely open minded about anything I suggested he try,” Dr. Smittkamp said. “Many people just want a quick fix for their tinnitus, but there isn’t one. It takes a lot of hard work and commitment to have a good outcome, and Steve was willing to do that.”
One of the first things Dr. Smittkamp suggested he try were ear-level sound generators. “Steve wears devices that provide a sound stimulus that blends with his tinnitus,” Dr. Smittkamp explained. “The sound is very relaxing and a nice substitution for most people with tinnitus.”
“I didn’t like the sound generators at first but I kept adjusting the volume,” Steve said. “Dr. Smittkamp said I needed to leave the volume alone. Now that I am used to them, I hear these calming chimes instead of the tinnitus. It’s very comforting.”
For Steve, wearing the ear-level sound generators was just the first step in managing his tinnitus.
Dr. Smittkamp made recommendations for daily meditation, journaling, doing concentration exercises, seeing a counselor, and establishing a healthy sleep environment. His primary care provider prescribed an anti-anxiety medication that helped him sleep and he added in a daily walking routine to the mix, trying to work in 15,000 steps a day.
“All of the things Dr. Smittkamp suggested were outside my comfort zone, like meditation and journaling, but I was desperate for help and I’m good at following orders, so I did what she told me to do,” he said.
“Many people don’t see how the meditation or relaxation exercises can help. But stress can make tinnitus worse. If you follow an established tinnitus management protocol like Steve did, it works,” Dr. Smittkamp said.
Steve agreed and said though the transformation wasn’t immediate, after a couple of months, he could see an improvement in how he responded to the tinnitus, and to life in general.
“Steve made some significant lifestyle changes that were a huge part of his success,” Dr. Smittkamp said. “He is a nice example of someone who had a really high level of tinnitus disturbance, but who has had a good outcome thanks to all his efforts.”
“Everything worked together to not only help manage the tinnitus, but to help me become a better version of myself,” Steve said. “My wife calls me Steve 2.0.”
Over the next several months, Steve continued to work with Dr. Smittkamp and his other providers at regularly scheduled appointments, implementing his tinnitus management plan. He met every goal he set, but best of all, he was done shedding those tinnitus tears.
“At those appointments, we would talk about how I was doing, and I would set new goals to reach by my next appointment,” Steve said. “Dr. Smittkamp would encourage me to keep up the hard work, count my wins and think about things from a more positive perspective.”
Then in November 2021, nearly one year after he started working with her, Dr. Smittkamp told him he had officially graduated from the tinnitus treatment program. He didn’t need to see her anymore.
“I have to admit I was a little disappointed to hear that because Associated Audiologists and Dr. Smittkamp have become such an important part of my life,” he said.
Of course, her door is always open if Steve needs help again. After all, Steve’s tinnitus isn’t gone. “My tinnitus is still here. It’s intermittent—some days it’s worse than others, but I no longer have an emotional connection to it. And if it does get worse, that’s a sign that I need to relax,” he explained.
“I needed a holistic approach to work through this problem and I had to put a lot of preconceived notions I had aside to make this successful. This just shows if you can be disciplined in your process, you will get better.”
Dr. Smittkamp agreed. “There is nothing that I have in my back pocket that will make someone’s tinnitus go away, but we can separate the disturbance from the awareness, which is what we’ve done for Steve. He’s learned to push it to the background.”
Going forward, Steve plans to continue following his tinnitus treatment plan, including the healthy lifestyle changes he’s made.
“I’m living my best life now,” Steve said. “I hate this ringing in my ears, but honestly, I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m glad it happened to me. It opened my eyes to a whole new world out there that I did not know existed until I had to work through it myself.”
And for anyone else struggling with bothersome tinnitus, Steve said you can overcome it too with help.
“I honestly thought my life was over until I met Dr. Smittkamp,” Steve said. “I am grateful for her and Associated Audiologists. They literally saved my life.”