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Former Ole Miss Football Player gets the gift of sound for Christmas

A 63-year-old former Ole Miss Football player got the gift of sound after a condition rendered him unable to hear out of his left ear for 17 years.

NEW ORLEANS — When hearing is impaired, people can withdraw from social interactions. And doctors are learning that untreated hearing loss increases the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

They are also learning that cochlear implants can be an important treatment for people who are partially deaf when hearing aids don't help.

And that’s why a quick reunion between two college friends was so important to a former football player and brought him the gift of hearing.

It's a big day for Donnie Miller, one he thought would never happen. The long journey started 17 years ago when he was in his mid-40s.

“And we were driving up the hill and I heard a pop in my left ear, just pop," said Donnie Miller, 63 of Oxford, Mississippi.

Voices had an echo, and within two days his hearing had a tin-type sound. It was difficult to understand voices, especially in groups.

It progressively got worse. Vertigo, or dizziness followed, and so did tinnitus, ringing in the ear. Then one day, Donnie, and his wife Lisa, thought he was having a stroke.

“I couldn't get up and walk and I told Lisa, ‘Something is wrong,’” he said.

There were 12 years of these episodes, and many doctor exams went by before Donnie finally got a diagnosis. It was Ménière disease.

“The whole room starts spinning, and patients get sick to their stomach, and it's really uncomfortable, and the worst thing about Ménière's is it's unpredictable when those attacks will happen,” Dr. Moisés Arriaga said.

Dr. Arriaga is a specialist in ear, throat, and neurosurgery at LSU Health Sciences Center. He says there are many causes of this condition, from an infection, injury, genetics, and even allergies. Ménière causes a fluid buildup around the inner ear.

“As you get more of these attacks, it ruins the nerve endings, and so you lose your hearing in that ear,” said Dr. Arriaga.

That happened to Donnie. It stole his hearing in his left ear, then his joy. At Lisa’s birthday party a year ago, she saw his pain.

“Donnie was always the life of the party. He was always the one telling jokes, people laughing, him laughing. And he was just sitting there and he looked like a little lost boy. And I told him at that time, ‘The best gift I can get is please don't give up. Please just keep trying, because it's changing you,’” said Lisa Blackman Miller, Donnie’s wife.

It was November 2021, and Donnie had given up. No doctors near their home in the Memphis area could give him hope that insurance would approve a cochlear implant. 

And then Ole Miss was in the Sugar Bowl on January 1, 2022. 

And the two die-hard Ole Miss fans and alums, a former Rebel football player, could have never dreamed that shortly afterward, their team going to this past Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day would reunite two long-lost college friends, lead them to Dr. Arriaga, who would give Donnie the gift to hear again.

“A month later, Meg, we had dinner and, it's hard for me to talk about. It was like just all of a sudden when you asked me, and I'll never forget you said, ‘Why didn't you call me?’” Lisa remembers.

You see, after four years of college together, careers take you on separate paths, at times reuniting for special occasions, or bumping into each other at a game. 

The decades roll past, then because of a short visit on New Year's Eve, the night before the Sugar Bowl, I learned of Donnie's health condition, and simply passed on Dr. Arriaga's name, followed by an insistence they come back in town to see him.

“What we are learning is cochlear implants can actually help people who are partially deaf,” Dr. Arriaga said.

Eleven months later, Dr. Arriaga took Donnie into surgery and implanted the internal part of the cochlear device. And now, a couple of weeks later, it's turned on.

“Whoa,” Donnie said with a range of emotions. 

Lisa walks over and kisses him. “What are you hearing?” she asks. 

“I'm hearing you in this ear,” he responds. “Emotional and trying not to be the 63-year-old ex-football player crying in the doctor's office. This time last year no hope I was done and here I sit.”

Tears were finally broken up with some levity.

“You want to take me shopping?” Lisa whispers in his new hearing ear.

“No. I heard that,” Donnie answers with a laugh.

That was followed by some genuine thank yous and hugs.

“I'm so happy. I’m so happy,” I said to Donnie as he was getting ready to leave.

And before good-byes, some more levity.

“Can I go shopping?” I jokingly whisper in his new hearing ear. He answers laughing, “Yeah, you can.”

Donnie will be back in a few months so Dr. Arriaga can start him on medication, or some type of treatment for vertigo. 

Lisa says this is like a rebirth. Donnie says we just can't understand how long the road has been and admits it was a mistake to give up. 

Now both hope, their story of hope, will give others reason to never give up their hope.

Dr. Arriaga is internationally renowned and leads a group of specialists at the CNC Hearing and Balance Center in New Orleans. The clinics are Uptown and in Marrero. For more, click this link.


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