An alien sound hits Shatner Tinnitus: Actor William Shatner has had ringing in his ears since an explosion on a 'Star Trek' movie set. He was in town to do something about it, for himself and others.

February 08, 1997|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Spock's ears always got the press. Many scoffed at those Vulcan ears -- save the occasional space babe who was very interested in Spock's ears. But that's another story.

This story is about James T. Kirk's ears. Ears that have made Kirk -- still going by the name William Shatner -- a patient at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Who knew? Then, Kirk has this doctor's appointment in Baltimore on Friday

Mr. Shatner is one of 40 million Americans who suffer from tinnitus, a disorder that causes a constant ringing or buzzing sound in the ears. Mr. Shatner will be available for interviews at the time of his check-up, said the center's "news assignment request."

First, what is tinnitus again? Is that like tennis elbow? Second, who would hold a press conference after a doctor's appointment? Kirk, that's who. Luckily, tinnitus does not involve bodily parts that would render moot the Trekkian mantra: "To go where no man has gone before."

The media were assigned to the story, and promptly (give or take a TV station) were seated and sipping courtesy Cokes. No Trekkies came; the security was Pope-like for the 4: 30 p.m. press conference in an over-dressed conference room. At 4: 10 p.m., there was plenty of time to purge the memory bank of all "Star Trek" references: Why not have Bones treat him in sick bay? What, or who, caused Kirk's illness? More wrath from Khan? Of course, the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise was a very noisy place: Lieutenant Uhura always unscrambling deafening signals; the steady whoosh of the elevator; the random alien attacking with a paralyzing beam of sound -- whereby Kirk staggers, covers his ears, grimaces, then tumbles into unconsciousness and a commercial break.

It's enough to send any man to an ear doctor.

OK, enough. Shatner is now at the podium, in front of a model ear with all its innards numbered.

"Some years ago, we had an explosion on the set of one of our 'Star Trek' movies," Shatner said. His co-star, Leonard Nimoy, heard it, too. "We both got this ringing in our ears, and it never really went away."

Shatner said he looked "all over the country" to get help, but doctors told him he'd have to live with the ringing. "It's like a radio left on, but just the static. And you can't turn it off."

He had never heard the word "tinnitus" and had no idea 40 million Americans have the disorder. And roughly 2 million of those people can't function normally because of the condition, says Dr. Douglas Mattox, one of Shatner's physicians at the medical center.

The actor (also of "T.J. Hooker" and "Rescue 911") started treatment at the center last year. The first step, said Shatner, was "breaking the cycle of fear that it won't go away and it will drive you crazy -- or worse." Shatner thought he was going deaf. He feared he couldn't sleep.

Shatner began seeing Dr. Mattox and Dr. Pawel Jastreboff, who had been developing a novel treatment at the university's Tinnitus Center. A device resembling an hearing aid was placed in Shatner's damaged right ear. So-called white sound is beamed (so to speak) into his ear, greatly reducing the chronic ringing.

"We have an 80-percent success rate," Mattox said. About 800 people have been treated here.

Before coming to Baltimore, Shatner had tried wearing ear plugs. Ear plugs, which don't help, gave him a crushing sense of isolation, Shatner said. He started asking friends, even strangers, whether their ears rang. He talked to a woman whose husband committed suicide because he couldn't stop the noise in his head.

"I thought I couldn't take it anymore," Shatner said. Now, Shatner tries to raise money and interest in tinnitus, which is nothing like tennis elbow. "You hear the radio? They said I had tetanus," Shatner said, cracking the first smile of the press conference.

Seeing him there -- in black jacket and blue jeans, taller on TV, tired around the eyes, still built like a club fighter, still with that commanding voice -- no "Star Trek" references came to mind.

There's still nothing funny about a man in real pain.

Pub Date: 2/08/97

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