Many years ago, Kenneth Niewiemski noticed that phone conversations sounded wrong. He switched the phone from his right ear to his left, and thought no more about it.
But in 2009, "I suddenly started hearing sounds in my ear," he said, popping like champagne bubbles, or a faint doorbell. Niewiemski, a retired truck driver, saw a doctor near his home in Smyrna, Tenn., but nothing made the tinnitus (the ringing and noises in the ear) stop.
Niewiemski got an MRI. The image revealed an acoustic neuroma, a tumor along the inner-ear nerves controlling hearing and balance.
"That didn't sound too good," Niewiemski said, but he was relieved to learn that most acoustic neuromas are not cancerous. Niewiemski's doctor sent him to Marc Bennett, M.D., FACS, an otolaryngologist at Vanderbilt's Skull Base Center.
A hearing test revealed the neuroma had destroyed 85 percent of the hearing in Niewiemski's right ear. Bennett and his colleague, neurosurgeon Kyle Weaver, M.D., discussed with Niewiemski what to do next. The options included surgery and radiation.
Niewiemski and his wife, Peggy, moved to Florida without doing either. Eventually he had another MRI, showing that the tumor had grown. But Niewiemski didn't feel confident about the quality of care from his Florida providers.
The couple ended up moving back to Smyrna. When they returned to Vanderbilt, Bennett and Weaver recommended it was time for surgery. Niewiemski's tumor had grown to about half the size of a golf ball.
Bennett and Weaver surgically removed the neuroma in March 2015. The surgery could not restore Niewiemski's hearing, but remarkably, neither the tumor nor the operation upset his balance. In the days right after surgery, Niewiemski walked a bit in the hospital and found it easier to carry his walker than to lean on it. He wasn't allowed to drive in the weeks after surgery but before long was back in his pickup. He has a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, too, and had kept riding it up to the time of his surgery.
"Afterward, I did wait a little bit before riding it," he said. "But at the end of April, I started riding."
Shortly after that, Niewiemski, 70, began a new part-time job, cleaning bikes at Bumpus Harley-Davidson in Murfreesboro, Tenn. His hearing aid compensates for some of his right-side hearing loss. He no longer hears odd bubbles and doorbells in his right ear, though it still produces a low whooshing sound. Niewiemski is not bothered by it. "It sounds like if you put your ear to a seashell," he said.