From deaf to degree: the story of one student’s battle with Meniere’s disease

“How does this sound to you?” the audiologist asks Dennis Stelling.

Stelling’s hearing in his left ear had been a black void for 18 years. He had heard nothing with it. More alarmingly, his right ear just began to fail and fluctuated between deafness to normal to choppy to “Peanuts”-esque teacher wah wahs.

Years earlier his left ear was affected by Meniere’s disease. Now his right one was succumbing to it. But after cochlear implant surgery, he was hearing again — and immediately, which is rare.

The first thing his left ear heard was the audiologist’s question, and then his wife’s laugh. A smile lights up on his face when he tells the story.

And now the Rochester Community and Technical College (RCTC) accounting student and lifetime farmer is excelling in school. But it was a hard, wavering, twisting and turning road to get here (quite literally).

Dennis Brick Shot

Meniere’s disease

Stelling remembers when his left ear first failed on him. It was the fall of 1992, corn harvest time. The corn, usually swaying in the wind, started to dance around violently.

“I was driving (the) tractor down the road, and all of a sudden the road just started swerving,” Stelling says. “I was going straight, but the road was moving.”

Nausea followed; Stelling doesn’t recall the trip home.

“I just parked the tractor, jumped off, and fell to the ground because I was so disoriented and nauseated,” he says.

He then spent the entirety of an 18-mile drive swerving through bluff country in the back of a car, vomiting the entire way.

The first doctor he saw told him he probably had Meniere’s disease, but it was atypical for someone so young to be diagnosed with it. Stelling did not even know what the disease was. A quick bit of research remedied that: the inner ear disorder causes a sensation of spontaneous spinning (vertigo) and fluctuating hearing loss.

In other words, a violent whirlwind of detriment.

A Mayo doctor told him later that he did not think Stelling’s hearing would come back. So he received a gentamicin injection (an antibiotic) to handle his vertigo — but the side effect permanently destroyed his hearing in his left ear, but doctors did not expect it to ever come back.

So by 1995, only one or two vertigo attacks came Stelling’s way. His hearing was gone in one ear, but so too were the debilitating spins.

“It’s just something you learn to adapt to,” Stelling says of the hearing loss on his left side.

A solution

In the fall of 2005 the hearing in Stelling’s right ear started to go out. The TV was maxed out, but the noise was just that — noise. The disease had spread to his second ear.

His hearing returned, but in 2013 it happened again: his hearing was cutting in and out. The “Peanuts” wah wahs were back.

Hearing aids weren’t going to help.

But Cochlear implants were something Stelling had heard of. He was apprehensive of the technology at first.

When at Mayo Clinic, Stelling told his doctor, “If I had to choose between feeling well and being deaf, or being able to hear and feeling like crap, I choose deaf in a heartbeat. I just couldn’t deal with it anymore.”

Being deaf wasn’t an option according to his doctor: he was a perfect candidate for Cochlear implants. The electronic medical device essentially does what the damaged parts of the ear no longer can: it stimulates the cochlear nerve, which sends audio to the brain.

The implants worked, and continue to work. Thanks to them, Stelling is able to do some farming — he is not ready to give it up — and also set him on the path to attending RCTC for accounting.

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Back to school

A friend of Stelling’s needed an extra tax preparer. A random chat later, and Stelling found himself training as a replacement. He did well, having handled taxes and business tasks for his farm.

And then one day Stelling was asked if he’d like to do bookkeeping. School wasn’t a requirement, but the bug to go back to school was firmly planted in Stelling’s brain.

As chance would have it, his wife wanted to go back to school to become a Registered Nurse.

“One day I said, ‘We’re going to drive to Rochester, stop at RCTC, and see what they have to offer for nursing,’” Stelling recalls. “When we left I was signed up for the accounting program and she wasn’t signed up for anything.”

That was fall 2015, and Stelling plans to graduate this coming spring.

The next step

More school may be on the horizon, but Stelling isn’t sure about it just yet.

“School has gone very well for me,” he says happily. RCTC’s two-year program for accounting has given Stelling the confidence to do bookkeeping. Plenty of encouragement around campus has him planning on earning a bachelor’s degree at Winona State University, but he’s taking his plan step by step.

“I was completely prepared to be retired because of my health reasons,” Stelling explains. “When you start feeling better, it’s like, ‘Now what do I do?’

“We’ll see.”

You can keep up with Stelling via his blog, My life with Meniere’s disease.

RCTC Spotlight is a series highlighting students, faculty, staff, alumni, and various departments.


One Comment on “From deaf to degree: the story of one student’s battle with Meniere’s disease

  1. I have only known Dennis for a short period of time. Less than a year. We “met” on a Facebook group page we both belong to when I was contemplating getting a cochlear implant. Although I do not suffer from Meniere’s disease, his story of his grueling adventure with this disease and his courage to overcome it, was what helped me with my final decision to get an implant.

    Thank you, Dennis Stelling, for everything you have done for me and countless others to share your amazing story.

    Tom Dowling

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