Hicksville, N.Y. This is a story about a kiss - an expression of love so potent from a little girl that it caused her mother not only to lose her hearing after a buss on the ear, but to be thrust into the pages of medical history.
Yet it wasn't the sound of the smackaroo that damaged the hearing of Gail Schwartzman, but a suction force that displaced the woman's eardrum, paralyzed a tiny trio of bones and left residual sounds in her head. Schwartzman's case will be the subject of a medical journal report within the coming weeks, outlining for the first time what the author calls "the kiss of deaf."
Schwartzman describes the kiss as physically painful but says it has left a deeper emotional scar on her daughter. Even as she recounted details of the buss planted two years ago, the child, now 6, broke into tears, apologizing to her mom. Schwartzman requested that her daughter's name not be published.
"What actually happened, I was out of the house that day," Schwartzman said. "And when I returned, I went to say a big hello to my daughter. She was 4 years old at the time. She was sitting on the floor watching TV, and she had really missed me. So I sat on the floor next to her.
"She grabbed me and gave me a hug and a really big kiss on the left ear. And while she was doing it, it felt like she was sucking the air out of my head. I couldn't push her away because I had this terrible sensation in my head," Schwartzman said.
"When she was finished, I had no hearing in that ear. The hearing slowly came back but with screeching noises in my ear," she said, referring to sounds known medically as tinnitus. Although some of her hearing has returned, allowing her to hear in muffled tones, the tinnitus has remained.
Lisa Freeman of the American Tinnitus Foundation said loud noises can induce tinnitus. "Typically this is the perception of sound in the ears or head. The sounds can range from ringing, clicking, swishing or buzzing and can cycle to moments of highs and lows," Freeman said.
She said tinnitus can be induced by sustained exposure to sounds usually greater than 85 decibels. The average rock concert hits the ears at 110 decibels and has left countless musicians with tinnitus.
"That was some kiss," Freeman said.
Dr. Anil Lalwani, chairman of physiology and neuroscience at New York University Medical Center in Manhattan, who was not involved in Schwartzman's case, said he has never heard of a kiss causing hearing loss.
Many of the cases he has treated, involving extreme sound exposure followed by hearing loss and tinnitus, increasingly have included soldiers who've served in Iraq.
Tinnitus, Lalwani said, is caused by damage to hair cells in the inner ear's cochlea, a shell-shaped structure that transmits sound signals to the brain.
Numerous doctors whom Schwartzman consulted immediately after the kiss were unable to solve the mystery of what precisely went awry. Scans and a battery of sophisticated tests were conducted. One physician prescribed a potent hormone. No luck.
Then, last year Schwartzman read a story in Newsday about a hearing expert at Hofstra University and thought she would give him a try.
Levi Reiter, Hofstra's chairman of audiology, who also has a private practice in Brooklyn, likens his role in Schwartzman's case to that of a Sherlock Holmes. He posits the kiss created a suction as would a vacuum cleaner or plunger over a drain.
"It's possible that things will get better as time goes by. Her tinnitus has gotten better; the other ear is just fine," Reiter said. "It could have been a lot worse."
Reiter believes the suction of the kiss dramatically disturbed the tiny trio of interconnected bones - the hammer, anvil and stirrup. He contends the kiss caused a slight detachment of the stirrup from the muscle and an inflammatory response.