Implants and Impact: The Legacy of Steven Otto

Jun 15, 2021 | Faculty Spotlight, House Institute Foundation

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By John Galvin, PhD

As some of you may know, our dear friend and colleague Steven Otto passed away recently after a long battle with leukemia. Steve was a mainstay at the House Institute for more than 30 years. He was vital to the development and success of the Auditory Brainstem Implant (ABI). He was the go-to person for clinical care for ABI patients in the US. Alongside his clinical and research presence, Steve was a wonderful person to work with and encounter daily and was key to the wonderful lab environment that made the Department of Auditory Implants and Prostheses so successful at the House Institute.

Steve grew up in Iowa, which some say contributed to his “pathologically friendly” demeanor. He began his audiology career at the University of Iowa, earning a master’s degree and joining the university’s Speech and Hearing Clinic. He eventually found his way to Los Angeles, where he worked with Dr. Bob Shannon developing the ABI and, later, the penetrating ABI (PABI). Bob and Steve were a great pairing. Bob provided the research and engineering skills, and Steve provided the clinical expertise. During his career, Steve authored or co-authored nearly 30 peer-reviewed publications, many of which provided the initial results of the ABI.

Steve worked closely with the ABI patients. Clinical fitting of the ABI was much different from fitting a CI. The frequency (pitch) relationship of the electrodes is orderly within the cochlea. With the ABI, the frequency for each electrode is unknown, and it requires much experience and intuition to map these patients successfully. Steve was the expert and was perhaps the most experienced ABI audiologist in the world. His patients loved working with him. He was just as known for his good nature and calm presence as he was for his smiling eyes and trademark mustache, and patients could always trust that working with Dr. Otto meant that they were in the best hands. When ABI patients visited, they would often bring food, such as fresh berries and shortbread, which Steve always shared with the lab.

Steve was also an avid collector of guitars and would sometimes demo his latest find in one of the lab’s sound booths. Surprisingly, he was also a collector of flashlights and always had at least one in his pocket (the origins of this flashlight fascination remain unknown). He was very sociable and, not surprisingly, he was often in the company of famous musicians, which speaks to their excellent taste in friends. All of us who knew him were equally lucky. We send our best wishes and deep condolences to his wife Ramona, the love of his life.

Steve Otto with Darlene Fragale, a cochlear implant user and previous House Institute employee.

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