By Paula Detwiller
Dr. Thomas Balkany of coastal Delray Beach decided at age 12 that he wanted a career in medicine. It happened the day his mother took him to the doctor for a nasal obstruction.
“I just thought it was wonderful that the doctor was able to help me,” Balkany says. “He was so calming, and I said to myself, ‘I want to be that guy.’ ”
Balkany became that guy — specifically, an ear, nose and throat guy — complete with his own soothing bedside manner. He chose hearing restoration as his sub-specialty, and went on to become a world-renowned cochlear implant surgeon and researcher. As founder of the University of Miami Cochlear Implant Program, he has given thousands of deaf children and adults the gift of hearing.
“This procedure totally intrigues me,” says Balkany, now 64. “It’s more than a living, it’s a passion — because I’ve seen what a difference it can make in people’s lives. And not just for the child or the deaf adult, but for the whole family.”
A cochlear implant is a computerized device that bypasses the damaged hair cells in the inner ear and converts sound waves into electrical energy to stimulate the auditory nerve.
Since their approval by the FDA in 1985, cochlear implants have evolved into highly sophisticated microprocessors with enough computing power to fly a jet airplane, Balkany says. And he should know: he holds 14 U.S. and international patents on cochlear implant technologies, and has written three books and more than 300 scientific publications on the topic.
He also has trained more than 300 surgeons and actively worked with manufacturers to develop and test experimental implants.
In recognition of his tireless work in improving cochlear implant design, functionality, and surgical standards, Balkany received the AXA Advisors Lifetime Achievement Award from the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce in May.
The inspiration for his life’s work came during medical school at the University of Miami when his wife, Diane, who was then the director of a home for developmentally disabled children, introduced him to a 14-year-old resident named Deano.
“Deano was a ward of the state of Mississippi, and he was being warehoused in this South Florida facility,” Balkany says. “My wife noticed he was very different from the other kids. He didn’t speak but he was bright and alert. We brought him to the medical school for testing and discovered he just couldn’t hear.”
That experience tugged at Balkany’s emotions; he couldn’t do anything to help Deano, but he resolved to work toward helping other kids avoid Deano’s fate.
“Every day without hearing is a day when that child is falling behind in their intellectual development,” Balkany says. “Hearing is not just about the sound of the doorbell or listening to Mom teach you how to say ‘Da Da.’ It’s about the entire development of the intellect and social structure of the child.”
Balkany recalled one of his most memorable cases, a young deaf boy whose family was initially against cochlear implants.
“Eventually, as his hearing loss progressed, the family decided to let the child have the cochlear implant, at 18 months. He was one of the youngest recipients at that time.
“Now he’s graduating from high school as a leader in his class, played all the sports, and happens to be really cute so he gets lots of girls chasing after him,” Balkany says with a grin. “He’s extremely bright, and now gives lectures about cochlear implants to national organizations.”
To date, Balkany has performed cochlear implant surgery on approximately 1,000 children and another thousand adults from North and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. One of those adults is 59-year-old Jim Frogner of Lantana.
Frogner was a little concerned when he first met Balkany because of the surgeon’s large hands. “He could palm a basketball, no problem!” Frogner says. “But the more I got to know him, I felt totally confident. His hands are huge, but they’re rock steady when he’s doing microsurgery.”
In his spare time, Balkany enjoys being a “family guy” and writing poetry, a lifelong hobby. Some of his poems have been published in the Miami newsletter of Mensa, the international high IQ society he joined in college after passing the requisite intelligence test.
With his calm, unassuming demeanor, it’s not readily apparent that Balkany is a highly accomplished surgeon, a gifted poet, or a Mensan.
“He’s the kind of guy you’d love to sit on the back porch and have a beer with,” says Frogner.