Valley Falls musician is a specialist for inner-ear problems
by Clarke Davis
People for years have turned to Gary McKnight if they needed a good song written. “Junior’s Field” and “The Christmas Tree on Main Street” are a couple that come to mind. Dizzy people, however, turn to him for a different reason. He’s the “dizzy doctor.”
By day this Valley Falls musician becomes a doctor of audiology, a professional who treats all aspects of the ear, especially inner-ear problems that affect balance.
Problems experienced by McKnight’s patients vary from a loss of hearing, normal in the aging process, to the sudden onset of dizziness, called vertigo, that gives the allusion of motion.
One’s stability in the sense of being able to stand upright and walk straight can be seriously jeopardized if all is not right with the ears.
Common complaints he hears range from, “When I move my head the world spins”; “When I sit up in bed, the whole room spins”; “My friends think I’ve been drinking.”
Most — 60 percent of McKnight’s patients — have a vertigo problem that is simple to diagnose and can be easily and quickly treated.
“Many have a problem of getting dizzy when they look up,” he said. “It’s been called ‘top shelf’ vertigo.”
McKnight said this is not only easy to diagnose but the problem can be fixed by the time the patient leaves his office.
McKnight’s only complaint is that many doctors will order an MRI as the first step in diagnosing this problem when he believes it should be one of the last.
“We can diagnose and treat this kind of vertigo for one-sixth the cost of an MRI,” he said.
Unfortunately, some are not simple cases and do need more tests to diagnose but, in McKnight’s opinion, fewer than 1 percent need an MRI.
Inner-ear problems can also be the result of infections, head injury from sports or vehicle accidents, tumors, and other diseases such as Parkinson’s. Many times they are related to other problems that include migraine headaches, eye problems, and one’s general physical condition.
“We really have to diagnose all systems and develop a treatment plan,” he said. “As people age it can be a combination of things.”
When it comes to hearing loss, McKnight said survey’s reveal that people put off on average seven years before they seek treatment. Hearing loss is common as one ages, but one’s occupation also plays a role.
“We see a lot of farmers and ex-military people who were exposed to lots of noise,” he said. “Hearing aid technology has really advanced although nothing will restore one’s hearing to what it was at age 16.”
People come to McKnight’s office who can’t hear a bird chirp, the blinker light on their car ‘click,’ or their keys rattle, but they are seldom convinced they are hard of hearing.
“I’m here because my wife thinks I’m hard of hearing” is a common statement he hears.
The loss of hearing leads to many other problems. Medical journals report that the decline in hearing can cause people to withdraw from society and this leads to the onset of dementia.
“We know there is a correlation when people are cut off from other people,” he said. “They are less interested in life.”
“Helen Keller once said that being deaf was worse than being blind,” McKnight said. “She said blindness cuts me off from the world; deafness cuts me off from people.”
McKnight, now 52, said his hearing is holding up real well considering he was a professional musician for 20 years.
“I’m just lucky I guess after 40 years of rock ‘n’ roll,” he said.
McKnight and his wife, Jan (nee Jackson), a Valley Falls native, were living in Nashville 20 years ago when it dawned on them that a musician’s life might not be the best for family life.
Jan’s uncle, Dr. John Bernthal, was at that time the head of the audiology department at the University of Nebraska.
“I think he had the most influence in my choosing audiology for a profession,” McKnight said.
Gary already had a college degree in business and public relations. He said his father only had an eighth-grade education and gave his children no choice in the matter. They all were required to go to college.
He did his master’s and fellowship through the University of Kansas Medical Center and received his doctorate from the University of Florida Medical Center at Gainsville.
He presently owns his own practice under the Tallgrass umbrella in Topeka. Tallgrass Balance, Hearing & Physical Therapy is located in far northwest Topeka on 6th Street across from the new movie theater.
His practice is run in conjunction with a physical therapy department headed by Tim Willingham. McKnight said Bob Clifton, an orthopedic specialist, also works with Willingham and is known by a number of people in this area. He used to practice in the Hunter’s Ridge area.
Jan McKnight is Gary’s office manager. Her son, Trent Coleman, Valley Falls, is the medical technician and hearing aid dispenser, and Sharon Church, Valley Falls, is the receptionist. If that’s not solid enough local representation, it can be added that Laina Burdiek, a Valley Falls native working on her doctorate through Wichita State University, will do her clinical rotation with McKnight this summer.
True North, McKnight’s band with which he still tours and records, has been on sabatical the past six months, but met recently to decide where they will perform this summer.
Their last two albums were “Dashboard Believer” and “Dimestore Hemingway.”
“I still write songs, but we don’t have any studio time scheduled for another album,” he said.
Gary latest interest is learning to play the banjo. “I didn’t think it was going to be so difficult to swith from the guitar but it is,” he said.
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