Man’s mission on bike trek: Raise tinnitus awareness

EVERETT — Ed Ruttledge hears a constant, machine-like noise inside his head. The Vancouver, Washington, man has been living for years with a condition called tinnitus. It is the seeming presence of continuous sound, such as clinking, chirping or ringing.

Now Ruttledge, 68, is set to ride his bicycle 100 miles across Western Washington to raise money for tinnitus research. He plans to pedal his way from Everett to Vashon Island on Monday and expects to continue his Tour de Tinnitus to Olympia on Tuesday.

He has already received about $1,500 in donations for the American Tinnitus Association, which is based in Portland. It supports research into treatments and finding a cure.

For many, tinnitus is a mild irritant. But for some, including Ruttledge, it is debilitating. The affliction affects about 30 million Americans.

“I had a pretty traumatic hearing injury,” he said.

Ruttledge was hurt three years ago while he was sailing on a yacht in the Caribbean Sea. The crew did not see him and fired a signal cannon near his head.

The noise in his ears hasn’t stopped since.

“I don’t hear much of what’s going on outside but I do hear what’s going on inside,” he said. “It’s like the noise an electric machine makes.”

The hearing impairment that accompanied his tinnitus forced him to retire early from his job as the human resources director at Intercity Transit in Olympia. His wife of 40 years, Lynnae, also left her position as a presidential appointee at a federal agency in Washington, D.C.

“She had to adjust her commitment because she felt like she had to get home,” Ruttledge said.

He is no longer able to enjoy music, plays or movies.

“I hear squeeks and squaks,” Ruttledge said. “Thank God for the Internet.”

He has learned to go about his normal activities with the help of technology, including an advanced hearing aid and a bluetooth device that enables him to use his cellphone.

“A lot of technology has come along, fortunately, at the same time I incurred my injury,” Ruttledge said. “It’s not an untreatable condition.”

Although there is no cure, he said, there are ways people can cope with tinnitus.

Ruttledge installed carpet that reduces noise in his home. He bought an electric car that runs quietly so he can have conversations while driving.

Despite the limitations of his hearing, Ruttledge considers his story one of success. He said he is living a full life.

Now he wants to help prevent others from developing the condition by making more people aware that one loud sound, or being around constant noise, can lead to hearing problems.

Tinnitus is a common problem for people exposed to continuous noise, such factory workers. It is a growing issue for those serving in the military. The condition is now the top service-connected disability for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the ATA.

It’s also a common affliction for musicians. Rock stars Pete Townsend and Neil Young, along with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, are among the famous people who have spoke publicly about their troubles with tinnitus.

William Shatner, the actor best known for his role as Captain Kirk on “Star Trek,” also suffers from the condition. His hearing was damaged as the result of a pyrotechnics accident while shooting an episode. Shatner has long been involved with the ATA.

Ruttledge hopes his journey can help the organization further research on tinnitus. His ride is one of four taking place around the country this summer to raise money. The goal for the combined treks is to bring in $5,000 for the American Tinnitus Association.

“It looks like we’re going to make it,” Ruttledge said.

To donate to Ruttledge’s ride, go to walk.ata.org.

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; anile@heraldnet.com.

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