Soon after Heather Hancock Dooley decided she wanted to pursue a career as an audiologist, she found out how few people knew exactly what that was — including her parents.

Clearly, the man who would become her husband did. They met after a girlfriend convinced her she needed to get out more often.

Explaining how she and her mate of 20½ years became acquainted, Dooley recalled, “My roommate was going out for the evening and told me I should come with her. I told her I was tired, and she said, ‘You’re never gonna meet anybody unless you go out.’

“So I went with her to hear a band and saw him across the room. Our eyes met, and he did a beeline straight to me and introduced himself and asked what I did for a living. When I told him, he said, ‘I think you’re standing in a bad spot for an audiologist.’ That’s because I was next to a speaker. I was impressed he knew what an audiologist was. A lot of people just say ‘huh’ or ‘what?’ ”

Dooley, who opened Lifetime Hearing Clinic in Lebanon 20 years ago, described what she does saying, “I test hearing. I diagnose people with hearing loss, trying to determine what caused their hearing loss and then try to treat the hearing loss. Treatment oftentimes includes hearing aids and sometimes referring them for surgery or medical intervention.”

It’s estimated that over 27 million Americans ages 50 or older suffer from hearing loss, yet only one out of seven uses a hearing aid. Most of them put off having their ears tested for 10 years.

Dooley said most wait because they think there is an age-related stigma attached.

“They think if someone sees them wearing a hearing aid, they’ll see them as being old,” she said.

Dooley estimated that 80 percent of those she diagnoses with hearing loss find that hearing aids improve their situation.

“It does get harder as individuals get older,” she added, “because then you’re not just dealing with hearing loss.”

Returning to Lebanon

Dooley was born in Nashville and moved to Lebanon with her parents, Ronnie and Debbie Hancock, when she started second grade at Highland Heights Elementary. She later attended Friendship Christian School before transferring to Lebanon High School and graduated in 1990.

As a freshman at the University of Tennessee she was uncommitted on a major, but her next-summer job put her on a providential path.

“I had grown up with a big youth group at an area church here and was asked to be a chaperone at church camp. As a part of that I took classes in sign language. During that time I didn’t have any direction, so I decided I wanted to be a deaf-education teacher and declared that my major,” she said.

“My counselor at UT was Dr. Sam Burchfield, a PhD audiologist in the graduate program. He questioned me about my personality and said, ‘Heather, I think you might make a great audiologist. Have you ever thought of that?’ I said, ‘No,’ and he explained it to me, and I felt regenerated and went home and told my parents. They were like, ‘What is that?’ ”

After completing her bachelor’s degree in speech and hearing science, graduating magna cum laude in 1994, she obtained her master’s of audiology in 1996, and in May that year moved to Tallahassee, Fla., to do a fellowship. There she performed a wide variety of tests including brain-stem testing, dizziness testing and inter-operative monitoring.

From Florida she relocated to Georgia and took a job with Atlanta Ear, Nose and Throat and later went to the PAPP Clinic in Newnan, Ga. That’s where she was practicing when she married Brandt Dooley, currently an HCA project manager.

The young couple decided Lebanon would be the best place to start their family, so Heather interviewed with Nashville Ear, Nose and Throat and was ready to accept its offer when Brandt suggested she open a private practice in her hometown.

“I told him, ‘I can’t do that. I don’t know anything about running a business.’ He was very encouraging. He said, ‘Heather, you grew up there. You know all the people there.’ I talked to my parents and asked my mom if she would join me and help me start the business. She had been a bookkeeper for years for TSSAA. We opened July 15, 2001.

“It was an adventure. Mom knew nothing about the medical field and had to learn about insurances and all of the behind-the-scene stuff. It’s been wonderful working together. After I had my first child in 2003, we just took him with us to the clinic and kept him in the back room and patients would want to see him.

“It was just the two of us for a while, and then my dad got sick with lung cancer, and my mom worked from home and kept my baby and kept care of my dad until he died in January 2004,” said Dooley, who has two children: William, 18, a senior at Lebanon High School, and Lillian, 15, a sophomore at LHS.

“Shortly after my dad’s death, we were joined at the clinic by lifelong Lebanon resident Cindy Taylor Foster, who helped us grow the clinic for many years,” she said.

Today, the audiologist has a team of three that includes Joy Kurtz, a licensed hearing instrument specialist who does hearing tests and fits hearing aids; Janice Smith, director of industrial hearing testing (OSHA requires employees exposed to loud sounds to be tested annually); and front-office coordinator Misty Harris.

A short time after the birth of her son, Dooley learned she would have to go back to school. The American Academy of Audiology decided upon new criteria for those seeking a clinical doctorate, an action that affected many audiologists who were engaged in an active practice.

“There were no courses I could take here,” Dooley recalled. “So they came up with a form of remote learning. I would work during the day and go to class online at night. I took a break to have a baby and started back up and finished that program in 2006.”

The new technology

Dooley works with patients from the ages of 19 to 100 and older. A typical screening for a new patient takes about 90 minutes.

Dooley noted there are a number of factors that cause hearing loss. Among them might be genetic predisposition, damage from noise exposure, infections, heart disease or diabetes.

“There is urgency in the case of a sudden hearing loss,” she said. “Oftentimes they are very treatable, but there usually is a three-day window to get that person on a high dose of oral steroids so hearing can rebound back. If they wake up in the morning and can’t hear, they assume it’s wax or fluid or a cold and that it will clear up on its own. They need to go see someone right away.”

She also warns people to be aware of consistently loud sounds in their home environment.

“Loud sounds over eight hours can do harm. We have teenagers who fall asleep with headphones for eight hours at 90 decibels, and there are those who work with headphones all day long. By just giving your ear a break every 30 minutes by taking them off will help. You need to be conscientious about anything you keep in your ear that long,” she said.

“Some believe that if a person has hearing aids that their hearing loss has been fixed. There are so many factors involved with the ability to communicate. Sometimes there is so much damage to a hearing organ that speech can still sound distorted. Hearing aids can help significantly, but even with hearing aids in, they still have to rely on their vision to figure out what people are saying.

“Earlier this year after Covid slowed, we were flooded with people wanting to be tested because of mask wearing, and they realized how bad their hearing was since they couldn’t see lips.”

Regarding what’s new in hearing technology, she mentioned that in the past three years they have developed hearing aids that have direct connectivity to cell phones, thus adjustments can be made remotely through an app or website. And now there are hearing aids that do not need batteries but can be recharged when not in use.

Even more cutting edge, Dooley described hearing aids for people who have a dead ear on one side.

“They can wear two hearing aids, and the microphone on the deaf ear sends it over to the other ear. They’re also talking about making more custom-fit pieces that will fit your ear like a glove and have integrated sensors,” she said.

“This will allow for hearing aids that can monitor your heart rate, your sugar levels, oxygen level and blood pressure. So we can use hearing aids not just as hearing aids but in a way to track many of your health issues. They even are looking at hearing aids that do real-time translating of foreign languages.”

Perhaps most exciting, she mentioned experiments where researchers have regenerated damaged hair cells in the ears of birds.

“They are taking that and moving toward being able to do it in humans. I feel like in the next 10 to 15 years we might be able to go in and regenerate human hair cells to repair damage.”

As for what’s most rewarding about her work, she said, “My husband sits behind a computer all day, and he tells me, ‘Heather, you’re so lucky to help people with their lives.’ It is very gratifying building relationships with people long term. I’m a problem solver and I feel like I’m good at it. If someone comes in, I believe I’ll be able to help them.”

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