DYESS AIR FORCE BASE – Texas, --
It’s 5:45 a.m. in the quiet city of Abilene, Texas, but to one Airman, typical morning noises are piercing to the ears. The Airman awakens and as her head spins with dizziness and confusion. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum. She’s overwhelmed by the unescapable sound of her own heartbeat. After adjusting her ear plugs, she attempts to walk to the bathroom. Every step she takes sounds like gun shots to the ear. She’s frustrated, she’s scared and she just wants an answer to why she feels this way.
This is how Senior Airman Michaelene Tulba, 7th Equipment Maintenance Squadron aerospace ground equipment technician, described a morning before being diagnosed with superior semi-circular canal dehiscence syndrome.
Tulba started experiencing the effects of this disease soon after she first arrived at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, in November 2016 but wasn’t diagnosed until June 2017.
According to professors at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, SSCDS is a rare disease that causes sound to be harshly intense due to the absence of a bony layer in the ear canal. It affects less than 0.7 % of the population. It causes a variety of issues such as vertigo, which is dizziness caused by the motion of objects that are known to be stationary. Vertigo is evoked by loud noises or maneuvers that change ear pressure, such as coughing and sneezing. It also causes patients to have a magnified sense of hearing. With this disease it is not uncommon for patients to hear the sound of their eyes moving and heart beating.
Tulba’s career field, AGE, involves maintaining different forms of equipment machines that cause quite a racket when operating.
“When I first arrived at Dyess, all I wanted to do was be a good mechanic, but SSCDS stopped me in my tracks,” said Tulba. “I tried to ignore the symptoms and do my job but even with two forms of hearing protection, the sound of engines rattled my brain and would cause me to lose consciousness at times.”
At first, Tulba searched for answers to why she felt the way she did, but struggled to find anything of relevance. She mentioned that she didn’t like to talk to people about it because of the way people reacted when she did.
“When I told people I could hear my eyes move and heartbeat, they thought I was crazy,” said Tulba. “Even I thought I was crazy. At times I wondered ‘What the heck is wrong with me.’”
When the shop was quiet, Tulba could perform equipment inspections and other AGE duties without any issues, but as soon as an engine started to run she would lose focus and balance.
Tulba tried to overcome these symptoms but after months of being overwhelmed by vertigo and the pain from the shop noise, her leadership decided to move her out of the shop to be the AGE training monitor.
“Tulba excelled in her role as training monitor and never made excuses,” said Senior Master Sgt. Roberto Garza, 7th Equipment Maintenance Squadron flight chief. “She also took on another job when our NCO in charge of AGE operations wasn’t present.”
Tulba’s time as training monitor was filled with constant medical appointments and the complications of SSCDS, but she still managed to earn a Senior Airman below-the-zone promotion.
“When I got away from the noise and into the training office, I finally felt like I was contributing,” said Tulba. “It was so rewarding to do this job and do it well for the AGE team because I hadn’t able to do that before.”
Tulba went to specialist after specialist until finally being diagnosed with SSCDS in June 2017. After the diagnosis, Tulba had to make a decision.
“My doctor told me my symptoms would only get worse as I aged and there would be no chance of me staying in the Air Force if I didn’t have surgery,” said Tulba. “The catch was that I had a high chance of going deaf if I chose to have the surgery.”
This condition not only took Tulba out of her job, but it made her non-deployable. With this in mind, Tulba went over the risks and benefits of the surgery for about a month and eventually decided to have the surgery for a selfless reason.
“I chose to have the surgery in light of the risks so I can benefit the Air Force,” said Tulba. “The Air Force has done way too much for me to get medically discharged. I did this so I can get back to AGE and do what the Air Force has been paying me to do all along.”
Tulba had the surgery on Feb. 5, 2018, and is now on pace to a full recovery. She’s slowly gaining her hearing back, and has not experienced any major symptoms since the surgery. When she returns to work her plans are to enjoy the sounds of engines and get to turning wrenches. She also hopes to someday deploy and said her future goal is to get accepted into the Enlisted Nursing Commissioning Program so she can help Airmen like she was helped through her journey.
It’s been a long and unsteady road for Tulba while living with SSCDS, but with the success she managed to have with these issues, one can only imagine the success she’ll have without them.