“You really need to learn how to lip read.”

I walked into a busy classroom and the teacher motioned for me to go over to where they were sitting. As I approached, they proceeded to whisper a remark about a child in their class. The whispering took place behind their hand. When they realised I hadn’t heard them, they removed their hand from their face and repeated the whispered remark; making over-pronounced shapes with their lips. The classroom was noisy, and I had no idea of context to help me in decoding what my colleague had said to me. They began to chuckle. I feigned an amused-sounding laugh; assuming this was an offhand statement which required no verbal response, and that a laugh in concurrence would suffice. Yet my reaction failed in convincing the teacher of my comprehension. The comment which followed was not about a child, but instead was directed at me. My colleague was obviously irritated at my inability to hear them, and the comment was made in response to this annoyance. It was conveyed with intense clarity. Each word was enunciated in a loud voice: “You really need to learn how to lip read.” I heard it perfectly. I left the room without a verbal response.

A couple of days later, again I went in to the same classroom and again my colleague signalled for me to go over to where they were sitting. They proceeded again to whisper a remark about a child in their class. I didn’t hear them, and again the same words were spoken: “You really need to learn how to lip read.” This time however, the comment was made twice. Both times I was unresponsive. Although I hadn’t heard them clearly the first time, I knew what had been said, though I wasn’t able to voice a response. I stared, aghast, at my colleague as they reiterated themselves, looking at me with a mixed expression of irritation shifting towards smugness; smirking at their own wit. How could they think this was appropriate, even funny?

I am accustomed to letting go of frustrating moments. I can shrug off aggravated looks from strangers when I fail to move out of their way in the supermarket, or when I don’t respond to them when they address me on my deaf side. I have learnt not to concern myself with raised annoyed voices, and irritated repetition of words. I even try to find retrospective humour in times of mishearing. I was surprised at my reaction to my colleague’s comment. My usual response of smiling to create a barrier; in protecting myself from such remarks was, for that moment, deactivated. My openness in talking about my hearing loss and explaining how it can make communication difficult, especially in noisy environments, was momentarily paused. After receiving the comment I felt vulnerable, weak, confidence drained. This colleague was someone who had asked me questions about my hearing loss and had shown interest in learning about my tinnitus. I thought they had some understanding. I failed to form a verbal response because I was in shock. I was upset. I was disappointed.

I have since had time to contemplate the interaction and have structured a response for any similar situation in the future. I should have said to my colleague that while I’m sure it wasn’t their intention, that their comment hurt me. I should have told them that I understand it can be frustrating for people to have to repeat themselves, and that this frustration may be elevated when they are busy. I would like my colleague to know that I am beginning to find myself watching lips during conversation, in situations where there is a lot of background noise, or when someone has a strong accent. I am using the shapes and movements of lips to help me translate the jumbled sounds into some meaning. I should have also told them that they had a valid point – although it could have been conveyed with some compassion or during a confidential moment. I should learn how to lip read. Not because my colleague thinks so, but because it seems like the natural next step for me in developing my communication skills.

In future I would like to give some information to my colleagues about lip reading. I would like to suggest ways of helping someone who is trying to read lips. Just because someone has experienced a hearing loss it doesn’t mean, by some kind of transferred skill, that they are instantly able to lip read with ease. These skills take time, practise and patience. I would like to explain that background noise and lack of context can make lip reading extremely difficult. That reading someone’s lips whilst they are speaking behind their hand is impossible, and that over-pronounced lip shapes are not helpful for the reader.

This experience has drawn my attention to the lack of understanding my colleagues may still have of my situation. Despite having explained some of the communication difficulties I face, I know it is easy for people to forget. I don’t look any different to how I did before my hearing loss. I am thankful for the people who ask questions, who listen, and who try to have some comprehension of my condition. Yet some people may not feel comfortable to ask questions. If I don’t explain how this type of comment can make me feel, then how are people going to know what an upsetting impact such a comment may have? Next time I will explain. Now I feel ready to respond to any similar remarks in a strong and positive manner, as the hearing loss advocate I am learning to become.

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Stranger Things: My Septoplasty Story – Part 3

At 8am the night-shift nurses said their goodbyes to me, and new staff started to enter the room.  An hour or so later I was given some antibacterial hand gel to clean my hands, and was presented with a yogurt, a clear jelly, a pack of plain biscuits, and some thick sweet fruit juice. I devoured it all. I paid only momentary notice to the difficulty I was having in swallowing food and eating, whilst only being able to breathe through my mouth. A doctor then promptly came to give me my medical notes and said I could go home. My boyfriend arrived and a nurse changed the bandage on my nose. This time the bandage was wrapped around, leaving a small opening, showing a glimpse of the tip of my nose. My boyfriend later commented that it looked like a beak and that I should paint it yellow. Soon I was sitting up in a chair, back in the first recovery room in which I’d been the night before, just before my operation. We were given my medical notes, a Ziploc bag with painkillers and antibiotics, and an appointment for the next day for me to have the packing removed from my nostrils.

The rest of the day I spent in exhausted fogginess. I lay on the sofa and dozed intermittently; happy to be home. My boyfriend bought groceries, made soup, and washed my hair; which made me feel a little better. My nose was extremely uncomfortable. It felt like the worst congestion I could imagine; like having a terrible cold, but not being able to blow your nose. As the day turned into evening I became increasingly uncomfortable. The congestion seemed to be spreading to my throat, and breathing was becoming more of an effort. My bandage was quickly turning red. I frequently had to clear my throat of bloody mucus, which was unceasingly replenishing in supply. By the end of the evening, whenever I attempted to swallow; little pink bubbles of mucus foamed in the small opening in my beak.

That night I slept. It wasn’t a restful sleep, more of an exhausted crash. I kept waking myself up with the loudest of snores; a consequence of my mouth breathing. On waking each time I realised my discomfort, and I made numerous trips to the bathroom to spit out more mucus. Then around 5am I woke in a panic, almost unable to breathe. I went to the bathroom with the feeling of something stuck in my throat. Whilst looking at my reflection in the mirror through tired eyes, I forced the muscles in my throat to contract and relax in order to remove the obstruction. Then it slowly appeared. I gently pulled on the offender; some gooey, mucus soaked gauze. It was like something from a horror film. I was just happy that the rest of the packing from my nose didn’t follow.

The next morning I had my appointment at the hospital. I walked into the consultation room, and was happy to see the initial doctor I had spoken with, when I had first lost my hearing. Today she spoke to me in Spanish.  She examined my throat for gauze, and then with a thin metal hook, she removed the packing from my nose. I had an immediate sense of relief. Oh my goodness, I was so much more comfortable. The specialist asked me to try to breathe through my nose. I had a few wonderful moments of clear airways. I was breathing through both nostrils! I felt a little lightheaded. Then rapidly the airways started to clog. The doctor carried out the usual nasal examinations; inserting the thin rigid tube with the light on the end, and then using the metal pliers-type tool to lift up the end of my nose and view my nostrils. She cleaned out my nose using a spray that stung slightly, and told me that the operation had gone well.

When I arrived home that day, I realized I could smell the soup from the night before. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I couldn’t smell anything the previous day. My nose freely dripped with blood all day. I resembled the character Eleven, from the television series Stranger Things, though I was unknowing of what magic I was performing during my nosebleeds.

It has now been 9 days since my septoplasty operation. I still have numbness in my top front teeth and on a small patch of my palate. The headache, stuffiness and pain from the congestion is lessening every day. My nose is still sore, and I am still very tired. A couple of days ago I discovered stitches on the left side of my septum, which I assume will dissolve or fall out over time. Every day I have to perform nasal irrigation to clean out my nose. This entails using a specially designed plastic bottle with a thin applicator spout with a plug on the end, which fits into the nose. I fill the bottle with water and add a salt solution, and then squeeze the bottle; allowing the water to travel through one nostril and then come out through the other. My right nostril is now clear. Although I am not yet able to breathe air in through my left nostril, due to the swelling and stitches, I have been able to breathe air out of this side of my nose; which I wasn’t previously able to do. This is already a positive result.

My next appointment at the hospital is in a couple of weeks, and I am in excited anticipation for the day when I am able to breathe with ease.

Roses are Red: My Septoplasty Story – Part 1

We were waiting in a room full of voices and echoes, and were discussing how to pronounce the word for ‘surgery’ in Spanish. There was a constant movement of people in and out, and around the room. Some would walk into the room wearing orange visitor stickers. Some were carrying a single red rose wrapped in a clear sleeve. It was Valentine’s Day, and the day of my operation to correct my deviated septum; to straighten it, to allow better airflow through my nose.

I was sitting with my boyfriend in the off-white-coloured waiting room. Around the perimeter of the room were rows of chairs, with metal frames and hard wooden backs that curved slightly into the seat. In the middle of the room were two more rows of the same chairs; back-to-back. There was a dropped ceiling with suspended ceiling tiles; the Styrofoam type that are often found in offices or classrooms. Some of the tiles were discoloured or stained with the light-brown outline of irregular shapes, and were interspersed with rectangular light panels. The walls were bare apart from two Van Gogh framed prints: his Sunflowers and a painting of some wheat fields. It was difficult to judge the time of day as there was only one window, allowing a small amount of natural light to enter the room. I sat, looking around the room and watching the movement of people. There were people here of all ages. I scanned the room observing their faces. Like a detective I assessed every person in the room. Were they wearing makeup? Jewellery? Nail polish? These were things I was told to strip my body of before the operation. Were they wearing comfortable, loose-fitting clothing? I was evaluating who was here for an operation and who was simply visiting a relative or friend. There was a small door off from the waiting room, to the left of where we were sitting. Some people walked straight through this door, with confidence and without the need for permission. Others had their name called by a nurse before entering. Some people came and went. Some went through the door without returning. Everyone seemed to be here for a different purpose. Every time the door opened, a sharp unsettled feeling attacked deep down in my stomach. Was it going to be a nurse calling my name? The waiting was arduous. After about 3 hours had passed we started to doubt whether we were in the right place. My boyfriend went to check; back to the original reception desk we’d passed through before entering into the room. My appointment was for 4:30pm. It was now after 7:00pm. We were playing the game again. We were in a Spanish hospital with no idea of the procedure for having an operation here. This was new territory for us. The receptionist confirmed we were in the right place, and that they were behind schedule.

When my name was finally called it was around 8pm, and the waiting room was almost empty. I was hungry and tired, from fasting since an early breakfast. My boyfriend and I walked through the door into a corridor that opened out onto a ward. In a small changing room I dressed in a hospital gown. On my feet I put elasticated blue foot covers that looked like delicate elf shoes. I completed my outfit by tucking my hair into a blue hair net; an action that reminded me of a short period of time spent working in factories, many years ago. We put my clothes in a locker, and retrieved the key: number 1. Then we went to wait in another room in which there were about 6 beds. I sat in a chair next to a hospital bed with dark green sheets. This seemed to be a recovery room. There were patients leaving the room after being given their hospital notes and Ziploc bags filled with medication. Some patients were in beds, with a relative beside them; waiting for them to feel well enough to return home. We waited here a while longer. I started to feel nervous.

Shortly, I was asked to get into the bed with the dark green sheets. I was wheeled through the hospital, into the lift, and then through some corridors. I was aware of my boyfriend changing position, moving from behind the bed, then to my side; endeavouring to keep up with the fast moving trolley. The two nurses who were controlling the bed looked tired and had sour faces. At an intersection of corridors one of the nurses mumbled something hurriedly in Spanish. She was telling my boyfriend to give me a kiss and to wait “over there”. The two nurses hardly slowed the motion of the bed, and I could see my boyfriend was still processing what they had said. I told him to kiss me, and as he swiftly moved towards me, I observed his confused face in the moment of our separation.

I was on my own now. I was wheeled to a corridor where I was left without comment from the two tired nurses, for what I guess was about half an hour. I lay in the bed with my good ear facing the wall. I could hear people; I think they were behind me down the corridor. They were the voices of women speaking in quick passionate tones. They didn’t sound happy. Someone was shushing them continuously. During my wait, a few people came to talk to me, and to read my medical notes. They all asked me similar questions: Where was I from? How should they pronounce my name? Do I have any allergies? All this was conducted in Spanish. I was happy to talk to people as they came to my bed. Talking was a distraction. During this time I was told that I would have to stay in hospital overnight, as it was now late, and there wouldn’t be time for me to recover from the anaesthetic. One of the members of staff asked me if I was warm enough. I told her that my feet were cold, and she folded a blanket, placing it over them. The anaesthetist also introduced himself. I think he said his name was Pablo. He was handsome, and had a kind face.

Without warning my bed began to move backwards. As the bed reached a doorway, the trolley was turned around and I was facing one of the tired nurses from earlier. I was going into the operating theatre. I remember the colour green. I made an effort not to observe the room too much. The kind nurse, who earlier had asked me if I was cold, came to speak to me. She questioned me as to whether I had noticed the feeling of warmth on my feet. She had positioned a heat lamp over them, and I thanked her. The anaesthetist was situated on my deaf side, and he was kneeling down, talking to me whilst holding my hand. Simultaneously he was using his other hand to pat my arm; trying to find a vein. I smiled as he talked. I couldn’t hear him. After a moment I told him I was deaf in my left ear, and he told me he would talk louder. He said jokingly that he would try to make the sound of his voice bounce off the wall opposite, and then back to reach my good ear. The cannula was inserted with a quick sharp sting, and the anaesthetist asked me to breathe some air from a mask made of thick black rubber. I breathed in the air, and then breathed in some more…

Working with my one ear

I used to almost consider my hearing as a super strength; it was a sense I relied heavily on as a teacher of young children. In fact, a couple of years ago I underwent a hearing test, as part of a staff medical assessment, and the audiologist commented on how remarkable it was that I was able to hear even the quietest of tones above the background noise of the children in the corridor. As a teacher I was able to identify the owner of any voice in the classroom, without having to turn and see their face. I was able to pinpoint the precise location of where a voice was coming from, and could swiftly turn around to face the person who had made the tiniest of noises, or uttered a sound in the quietest of voices; with an ease of motion gained from years of experience teaching infants. Only after my hearing loss did I realize how much confidence I placed in this ability. My super power was now gone, and I was learning to survive in a classroom, and a school setting, without it.

I had resigned from my job as a teacher of 4 and 5 year olds. Working full time in a classroom wasn’t an option for me anymore, due to the amount of noise exposure I would have. My new job was working as a learning assistant. My new job involved some time supporting a teacher in the classroom; some time covering teachers when they would be in meetings or planning lessons; and some time working with individuals and small groups, in a quiet environment, outside of the main classroom.

With only one hearing ear, I am unable to locate sounds. If a child speaks to me in a classroom, and they are not standing in an obvious position, I will have no idea where the child is situated, and will spend some moments looking around trying to determine their position. Similarly, if I am sitting in front of a class, and a child shouts something out, I cannot rely on my listening skills to identify the culprit, and will instead search for a guilty-looking face. With time I have discovered that, when a child makes an inappropriate noise, if I say, “Who was that?” in a stern voice, without moving to look, the other children will immediately turn or point to the perpetrator!

There is the difficulty of being unable to focus on spoken word over background noise. If a child tries to speak to me in the classroom when the rest of the children are busy carrying out activities, I have to make sure they are on my hearing side, and very close to my ear, in order to be able to hear what they are saying. There have been times where I am concentrating on something a child is saying to me, on my hearing side, when all of a sudden I have felt a vibration or a whisper of a breath in my deaf ear, and I’ve turned around, only to be startled by a child speaking intently into this ear!

Working in an Infant school is a demanding role for someone with a sensitivity to noise. The children are young, and so naturally are often noisy. As well as the obvious loudness of children’s voices in the classrooms and the corridors, there are also some difficult situations I can’t always predict or plan for. There is the painfully-loud noise of a fire alarm drill; the loudness of music played in assemblies and music lessons; the intense volume of other staff member’s voices in staff meeting debates that often overlap with each other, becoming unintelligible to me.

There is my lunchroom nemesis. The school dining hall is a space with an absence of soft furnishings. There are neither carpets nor curtains to absorb the abundance of sound produced in this room. Inside this space are long tables, and glass windows that frame the full length of one side of the room. The opposite side of the room opens onto to a small utility area, featuring a large-scale kitchen sink. This area is used for rinsing the children’s lunch trays with a high-powered rinsing tap. During lunchtimes this room is an abundance of energy. The long tables brim with children. The room fills with chattering voices, the clinking of cutlery, the banging of plastic trays against bins to rid them of any leftover food, and the sound of jets of water spraying into a metallic sink. The sounds seem to bounce around the room from the glass windows, to the hard floor, and to the metallic kitchen area; rarely being absorbed, and mixing with the new sounds being made every moment. I have been using my time spent in this room as part of my sound retraining therapy; getting used to everyday sounds I find challenging, and to help my brain tolerate noises that at present seem too harsh or too loud. As well as battling with the discomfort of the noise in this room, I also have the issue of socializing. Lunch time is often the only time members of staff have, in the school day, to have a quick chat. In this room, if someone sits next to me on my hearing side, I can usually conduct a conversation with a little effort; making sure my ear is close to the person speaking. However, if someone comes to sit next to me on my deaf side, I won’t hear them approach. This means I continuously check this space to see if anyone has sat down. If there is already someone sitting there, I find myself constantly observing their face to determine whether or not they are talking to me. I often find myself eating my lunch quickly to avoid the noise exposure and the communication difficulties. I know this isn’t helpful in moving forward in dealing with my nemesis, but sometimes, when lunchtime arrives, I’m so tired and it’s hard to concentrate. The other scenario is that I make a big effort to start and hold a conversation with the person sitting on my deaf side. This means I have to turn my body around to face them, to have any chance of hearing their dialogue. This makes eating my lunch a difficult task, and hence means more time spent in this room; my nemesis.

Then there was The Cough. I was in a classroom, covering for a teacher, and every few seconds one of the girls would burst into a deep chesty cough. I encouraged her to drink water whenever she felt the need to, but this didn’t seem to provide her with any relief. Over the course of the hour during which I was in the class, I spent my time dueling with The Cough. Every time I spoke, there was a cough interruption. In the presence of The Cough, it was as though any audio in the room at that moment was being censored. Just like when watching something on television when there is a bleep censor used as the replacement of a profanity, or for when classified information is used; this was the consequence of The Cough. So, whilst sitting in front of the class, trying to teach, every few moments, I was for a few seconds unable to hear anything other than The Cough. I was also unable to gauge whether the volume of my voice was at an audible level. Similarly, I was unsure of how much to raise my voice for it to be heard over The Cough, without raising it so much as to be shouting. Then when a child spoke to me in the moment of The Cough, I had completely lost the battle.

There was an awkward moment at the end of a school day. I was again, in a class covering for a teacher. It was the end of the school day and I was reading a chapter from a story to the children. Within moments of beginning to read, a parent came to the door. She opened the door, and she wanted to speak to me. The door was at the opposite end of the room from where I was sitting with the children. I walked across the room to the door, and predictability the children burst into conversation. I walked towards the lady who was standing at the door. And so, the rumbling of chattering continued. The parent at the door was someone I was unfamiliar with. She began to speak to me. I couldn’t hear her. I moved my right ear towards her, closer to her mouth, to give me a chance at gaining some understanding of what she was saying. Well, I was momentarily perplexed by what happened next. The lady turned to face me. She put her hands on my shoulders, and proceeded to kiss me on both of my cheeks! She had unknowingly mistaken my advancing towards her in order to hear her, as an attempt to initiate this customary Spanish greeting! I observed the tradition, in a brief confused state, and uttered a nervous laugh. I then continued to stand ‘too close’ to her as she proceeded to speak to me. I’m sure she felt the awkwardness, but I’m also very sure she had no idea of the reason for it.

Although the majority of my colleagues are aware of my hearing loss, people often seem to forget. Words are habitually spoken to me in passing in a busy corridor, or across a noisy classroom. I consider these moments a complement. I must not be visibly struggling.

Above all, I am tired. I am working in the hearing world, yet this is a world that I don’t entirely fit into any more. The level of concentration and energy needed to focus on spoken word all day is exhausting. Working in the hearing world, I am always visually scanning my environment in order to identify the potential movement of speaking lips. With the exhaustion comes, at times, almost deafening levels of tinnitus. With tiredness and noise, the pressure in my ears builds, like a balloon skin being pulled tight; a balloon full of air pushing against the inside of my ear and spilling out into my head, causing my ears to hurt, and the hum of a daily headache.

Every day is a challenge. Working life is still really difficult and I often feel completely drained. But I am glad to be filling my days. I am happy to be making progress in getting some ‘normality’ back into my life.

Specialist appointment part 2: Ear bubbles, a blocked nose… and a plan

…The specialist only briefly addressed my noise sensitivity. It had been my understanding from my previous appointment, with the previous specialist, that the reason for me meeting with this particular Ears Nose and Throat (ENT) doctor, was to receive some sound therapy. This therapy would help retrain the auditory processing centre of my brain to accept everyday sounds. Instead of therapy, I was given a suggestion of a procedure I could perform by myself. The advice I was given during this consultation was to subject my hearing ear to noise or music, at a volume level which I found too loud, for a period of 20 minutes. I was to do this 3 times a day. I was given the example of listening to nature sounds on my headphones, whilst keeping the volume as loud as I could possibly bear it. The ENT specialist told me that eventually I would be able to turn the volume up to higher levels. He told me that there were special hearing centres I could go to, but these would cost money, and it was customary and also effective for patients to carry out this treatment themselves. I found it curious that in the same appointment in which I had been told to avoid loud noises in order to protect my only hearing ear, I was also told to subject the same ear to noise that would cause me discomfort.

After feeling yet a little more deflated on realizing the only therapy or support this specialist was going to offer me, was the small piece of advice he’d just given me, and not a series of therapy sessions, which I had been hoping for, I started to hastily ask my friend to enquire about a few more issues; as the feeling of outstaying our allotted time started to encroach upon us.

I asked my friend, who had accompanied me to help with translation, to question the specialist about the operation I had been told about months ago, which would straighten my nasal septum, in order to help me breathe more easily. The specialist had no visible response to this enquiry, and he continued scribbling notes into my medical history booklet. With perseverance, intent on maximizing my time with the consultant, I asked my friend to mention the feeling of pressure I have in my ears, and about my bouts of dizziness, and to ask if there was anything I could do to relieve these symptoms. Without raising his head to acknowledge us, he pointed to an examination chair across the room from where we were sitting, and he mumbled something inaudible. I obediently went and sat in the chair. I had sat in this chair before. I hoped that I wasn’t going to have the customary experience of having a viewing tube inserted into my nose, for the third time. The specialist put on a head mirror and some surgical gloves, and then he reached for an examination tool. This tool appeared less sophisticated than the viewing tube. The tool resembled a pair of metal pliers; with thinner handles, and two hooked jaws. He inserted the contraption into my nose, with both of the metal hooks sliding into each nostril respectively. He swiftly and forcefully lifted the handles of the device upwards at an angle, to view inside my nose; examining the structure of my septum. He said that my nostril was completely blocked on the left side, due to the deviation of my septum. I already knew this. I have been unable to breathe through my left nostril for as long as I can remember. I had also had this same discussion, two times previously, in this same room, with two other former specialists. This information was in my medical notes, in the booklet that was sitting on the desk in this same room.

Then, without further explanation, I was asked to leave to room. I was instructed to go, for perhaps my fifth visit over the past year or so, to have a tympanometry test. A tympanometry test is often used to assess the function of the middle ear. The results of tympanometry are represented on a graph called a tympanogram. This is a graphic representation of the relationship between the air pressure in the ear canal and the movement of the eardrum, and the tiny bones in the air-filled middle ear space. When the eardrum is disturbed by a sound, part of the sound is absorbed and sent through the middle ear while the other part of the sound is reflected. The information derived from tympanometry provides information regarding middle ear function, especially Eustachian tube function.

The nurse who carried out the test was a nurse I was familiar with. She was friendly and jolly and seemed intent on carefully explaining everything to me. In the interest of respecting her, much appreciated, caring nature, I acted as though I was unfamiliar with the procedure. She kindly explained the process to me, through my friend; my translator. An ear probe was promptly placed, first into my hearing ear, and then into my deaf ear, to test the responses. As the probe in my hearing ear caused the air pressure in my ear canal to change, I heard some low-pitched tones. When my deaf ear was tested, it remained silent, with only the sound of tinnitus prevailing. While the pressure was changing, measurements of my eardrum’s movement were being taken and recorded. The test was over in a few minutes. When the nurse examined my results, she scrunched her face into a painful expression. She asked me if I have the constant feeling of being in an aeroplane. Yes! I have an unceasing pressure in my left ear, and though not as pronounced, in my right ear too. It is the feeling of pressure, comparable to being in an aeroplane and not being able to pop my ears. I also have the occasional sound of little bubbles similar to those in the foam made by bubble bath, or bubbles in fizzy drinks traveling to the surface, escaping into the air with a with a crackling sound. These sensations are sometimes accompanied by a sharp deep and momentary pain. Yes! This pressure is causing me constant discomfort, and is more difficult to manage than my actual hearing loss. Yes! This pressure I feel is what I’ve told every specialist about. Yes! This wonderful nurse had immediately identified this as a significant source of discomfort, and was showing empathy towards my situation. She was the first person in over a year of consultations, to not just read my results and identify a problem, but to actually show some understanding of the unpleasantness I was experiencing.

I returned to the consultation room, and showed the doctor my tympanogram. After regarding it for a moment, he told me with confidence that the reason I have the feeling of pressure in my ears is because I can’t breathe properly. This is not what I’d been told before. I had been told that there could possibly be a link between my inability to breathe effectively through my left nostril, and my ear pressure. I had believed that the pressure was a consequence of my hearing loss. The onset of the feeling of pressure had, after all, coincided exactly with the moment I lost my hearing. I told him that it had not been communicated previously to me that the issues with my nose were the certain cause of the discomfort in my ears. He repeated with vehement assurance that the pressure in my ears was a direct result of my difficulty breathing. This was something new to me.

The specialist then questioned me about my sleeping habits. I told him how I have struggled to sleep, to the best of my recollection, for most of my adult life. I told him how I find it difficult to fall asleep, due to problems breathing. I told him how my brain seems to wake me up just as the rest of my body feels like it’s going to sleep. I told him that I am only able to sleep effectively whilst lying on my left side. If I sleep on my right side; the side of my functioning airway, the nostril closes up which means I can’t breathe at all through my nose. He told me that I needed the septoplasty. This operation would straighten my septum, allowing for better airflow through my nose.

There are long term effects of a deviated septum. In my case, having a deviated septum has meant that not only have I had many sinus infections, but I also often get throat infections; as I regularly breathe through my mouth. The blocked nasal breathing due to septal deviation also has a negative effect on the Eustachian tube, which means drainage from the nose is not efficient. If what the specialist was saying was correct, having the operation could lead to better tubal drainage from my nose, and as a result this could relieve some of the pressure I am feeling in my ears.

My hope for this operation is that it will help me feel more comfortable whilst sleeping at night, as I will be able to breathe through both nostrils. After time I should start breathing through my nose more during the night, and therefore shouldn’t wake up as much; as a result of having a dry mouth, or as a response to my body warning me that I am not managing to get enough oxygen into my lungs. In consequence, I hope I will also feel more refreshed when I wake up. My most cautious hope however, is for an eventual reduction in the pressure I am feeling in my ears.

And so, after over a year of rapid changes of emotion, I am once again feeling hopeful…

Another consultation with another specialist – Part 1: Distractions

The first thing he said to me was that I would never get my hearing back. There was no greeting. In fact he didn’t even lift up his head to look at me, as he spoke these opening words.

I was in the hospital again for a consultation with another specialist. My usual Ears Nose and Throat doctor (ENT) had gone to study in England, and so I was again preparing myself to tell my story to a stranger.

Prior to meeting this new specialist, I had carried out some hearing tests. The first test, as always, was a pure tone test, which tests the ability to hear a number of different tones (beeps), using a pair of soundproof headphones. Next was the usual bone conduction test which measures the ability to hear tones, by placing a small bone conductor behind the ear. Normally, these are the two tests I undertake before speaking to a specialist. This time however, I had been asked to carry out an additional assessment: a speech recognition test. This test is similar to the pure tone one, but instead of listening to different tones, the patient listens to words spoken at different volumes, which they are then asked to repeat. The speech reception threshold shows how well the individual hears and understands ordinary conversation. I had carried out this test before, when I had consulted with the specialist in London. That test had been conducted in English; this time however, I would be doing it in Spanish. When I completed the test in my mother tongue, I found that even if I couldn’t clearly hear the whole word, I could guess what the word was; based on the associated tones I could hear, and my knowledge of the English language. This time I was obviously at a disadvantage. I am not fluent in Spanish, and this felt more like a language test than a hearing one. The audiologist assured me that the words would only be two syllables and would be very basic.

Well, the test started off OK, with me repeating a few simple words being played into my good ear. Then things got more difficult. I found I was concentrating so hard on listening to the two syllables of each word that I either ended up missing the start of the word or the end of it. And, as asking the audiologist to replay the word wasn’t an option, I ended up just saying the one syllable that I knew I had heard. This carried on with me grimacing at every non-word I was saying. Then the audiologist turned up the volume and I was in immediate pain. I looked through the glass screen at her and pulled a distressed face. She spoke into her microphone and asked if it was too loud. I told her it was, and she said she would turn the volume down. She assured me she had done this, yet I continued in pain, with the distressed look on my face, as she continued to play more words at me. I was relieved when the test was over, and when she came into the booth where I was sitting to change the headphones over, in order to test my deaf ear. I then sat patiently whilst the test was carried out on my deaf ear; aware that the audiologist was on the other side of the screen, busy playing Spanish words into my deaf ear, yet unable to hear them. Some minutes went by, and then she played the words really loud into my deaf ear. I was again in discomfort, yet she didn’t turn down the volume. The noise was distorted, yet I was able to attempt to vocalize some of the sounds. Then the test was over, and I was asked to wait outside.

Over 3 hours later I was called in to a consultation room to speak to the new specialist. The head-teacher of the school I work in had kindly suggested my Spanish friend accompany me for this consultation, to help with translation. I had been told that this new specialist would be giving me some therapy to help me cope with my sensitivity to sound. I had also been told that this new specialist didn’t speak any English. I knew I had an adequate level of Spanish to be able to understand the main points of discussion. I would however, find it difficult to describe any sensations associated to different volume levels or types of sound.

Well, thank goodness my Spanish speaking friend was with me. The specialist mumbled his way through the entire consultation. He barely even moved his lips as he spoke! As someone with a hearing loss, it is very difficult for me to understand someone if they do not speak clearly. Even my hearing friend who speaks Spanish, had to move closer to hear what he was saying, and also asked him to repeat himself on more than one occasion. As someone with hearing loss I also find it difficult to hear speech if there is any background noise. And, a few minutes into the appointment, the distractions commenced.

We were sitting in a small square consultation room, and at the far end of the room was an open doorway which led to a corridor where staff were busily chatting and walking from room to room. In addition to the almost inaudible muffled tones being uttered by the specialist, the added distraction of the staff in the corridor further hindered my ability to follow what the specialist was saying. Then two people entered the small consultation room. One of people was a young-looking guy wearing a white lab coat. He proceeded to the sink on the right-hand side of the room. He turned the tap on, and started to do something which sounded like it involved a scrubbing brush... Chat chat chat, clomp clomp clomp, swoosh swoosh swoosh, brush brush brush… mumble mumble mumble…The brushing and the sound of water flowing rapidly into the sink, mixed together with the corridor noise, forcing the specialist’s mumbling to grow more distant. The other person who had entered the room was a female nurse, who proceeded to the left-hand side of the desk where we were sitting. She started flicking through a stack of patient’s files; pulling them out of slots of a metal trolley, and flicking some more… chat chat chat, clomp clomp clomp, swoosh swoosh swoosh, brush brush bush, flick flick flick… mumble mumble mumble… the specialist’s indistinct tones were drowning in background noise. At one point he even had a piece of paper covering his mouth, which meant that I wasn’t even able to observe any slight movement of his lips to gain some clue as to what he was saying. What if I was a lip-reader?! I imagined a page from a puzzle book; the kind where there is a line drawing where you have to circle what’s wrong with the picture.  Well, if the aim of the puzzle was to highlight the aspects of this scenario that were making it a difficult environment for communication for someone with hearing loss, I’d be circling almost everything on the page.

I watched as the specialist quickly scanned the A4 booklet of notes that had been written about me, by his predecessors. I took a breath and focused on staying patient and prepared myself for the usual inquiries that would force me to relive the difficulties the past year had brought. Predictably I was soon asked the standard questions. When did it happen? Was it sudden? Have you tried a hearing aid? He told me that my right ear was functioning well. I assume he must have discounted the results of my speech recognition test, to come to this conclusion. He told me that the most important thing was to look after my right, only-functioning ear. He advised me on my diet. Since losing my hearing I have had various doctors and specialists suggest many things that I should not be eating or doing, in order to protect my remaining hearing. This time the list included, amongst many other things; no alcohol and no caffeine. I was told to avoid using certain types of hair dye, gold, and numerous types of antibiotics. There were countless other things on the list that could prove toxic to my ear, of which I had no idea what they were. I was to avoid loud music and high noise levels. My friend explained how I work in a school. The specialist said that a school environment was OK…I often think that people don’t realize how loud a classroom, or an infant school playground can be!

The specialist had a blunt manner. He seemed to be highly knowledgeable in issues regarding the ear; having all the textbook-theory knowledge, yet none of the practice. There was no evidence of him showing any understanding of how sudden hearing loss can affect someone’s ability to understand speech, not to mention their self-confidence or other associated emotional factors. He even managed to upset me; when he asked me how long I’d been living in Spain, and he commented how my Spanish should be better after such an amount of time. Hmm, maybe after obviously being a consultant for such a long time, he should have more on an understanding how to address patients with hearing loss?!…Nevertheless, as the consultation continued, my friend and I remained collected. We asked our questions, and finally we started to form a new plan of action…

One year on… My thoughts on my sudden hearing loss

It is one year since the day in the auditorium when I suddenly lost the hearing in my left ear. It has been a year spent attending appointments with various specialists, a year of being observed and tested, and a year of taking different medicines and trying hearing aids. I spent almost a year without working; trudging slowly through my days, with the feeling of frustration weighing heavily down on me. A year has passed and there have been no answers, and no improvement in my ability to hear. It has been a year that has damaged my confidence. A year that has chipped away at me; with every hurdle and setback diminishing my character. Yet it has also been a year of building myself up; grasping at ways to find strength through my adversity.

It still feels very recent. I still wake up every morning to the realization that I can no longer hear in my left ear. A part of me continues to cling on to the tiniest of hopes that one day I will miraculously wake up with the full ability to hear; that my hearing will re-emerge as quickly and as spontaneously as it disappeared. This hope is an inherent part of me that I’m unable to control or even want to suppress. Yet, this doesn’t mean I haven’t accepted the reality of my situation.

In addition to becoming deaf in my left ear, I have been left with: tinnitus, a sensitivity to loud noises, the inability to identify where sounds are coming from, and difficulty hearing in background noise. Yet worst of all, there is a relentless feeling of pressure I feel in both ears, though more so in my left. It is these other issues that are proving to be more difficult to manage than the hearing loss itself.

Living with hearing loss and associated symptoms poses everyday challenges. Even though I have had no actual improvement in my symptoms, I have a better understanding of my hearing loss. I am improving my coping techniques every day; achieving small triumphs that feel like fairy steps of success. Notably, the discomfort I used to feel when this first happened, when going outside my apartment into a world of noise, has now become a habitual sensation. Although it is very present, it is something I rarely think about; an unpleasantness that has now been forced to the background of my focus. Loud noises are still painful. The sound of emergency vehicle sirens, motorbike exhaust pipes, and the clattering of dishes, all cause me physical pain deep inside my ears. But I have also discovered some noises that bring me comfort. The sound of a gentle river, the wind brushing past tree branches, and rustling leaves force my mind from giving attention to any unwelcome sounds of tinnitus. I have found that wearing headphones helps to block out the noise of the Metro and noise associated with trains and public transport. For short periods of time I am now able to listen to my IPod through my headphones, and can enjoy music and listen to storytelling podcasts; this is something I thought I would no longer be able to find pleasure in, due to my sensitivity to noise. I have developed my understanding of practices that can affect my condition. I now realise that if I drink alcohol, eat something with a high salt content, or if I don’t sleep well, my tinnitus will be stronger. The presence of loud tinnitus and tiredness, in turn, means I will find it difficult to concentrate well on hearing tasks. Socializing can be demanding amongst background noise. In restaurants and bars I have learnt to sit in a corner, or with my deaf ear against a wall and my hearing ear facing the person I am speaking to, in order to have some chance at hearing them in conversation. I have learnt that it is only possible to concentrate on listening to one person at a time. I have also learnt that with large groups of people and circular tables comes a lot of frustration!

It has been a year of firsts. There was my first run since my hearing loss, where I started to feel so much stronger, and more ‘myself’. There was my first train journey, where I watched the beautiful countryside through the train windows, with the sun on my face, and when I felt so happy to be listening to music through my headphones; thankful for the hearing I had left. There was my first time in a restaurant since my hearing loss, which taught me so much about the importance of selecting a table wisely.

It has been a year of being proactive; writing articles for hearing loss websites, and getting involved in fundraising campaigns for deaf charities.

It has been a year of ‘silly deaf moments’ and mishearing words: sitting with my boyfriend on a terrace and mishearing him say the word ‘parmesan’, and instead hearing ‘lederhosen’, and wondering why my boyfriend would want such a thing sprinkled on spaghetti!

It has been a year of feeling vulnerable. When I’m on my own in everyday places and situations, such as the supermarket or walking down the street, I worry about strangers talking to me, and not being able to hear them, or even worse failing to acknowledge them; if they have addressed me on my deaf side. I worry about cars pulling out of parking spaces, and not registering them until they are moving towards to me. I worry about crossing the road and hearing the siren of an ambulance, and not knowing which direction to move out of the way.

It has been a year of frustration. I am frustrated in train stations and airports where I can’t hear the Public Address systems clearly. I become frustrated with bars that play their music loud, or that are bustling with chatter too loud for me to tolerate. I am frustrated at people who speak in mumbled words, or who turn their head away from me during conversation; meaning I am unable to hear parts of what has been said. I am frustrated at feeling like a burden with every time I have to ask someone to repeat themselves. I am sad that I am now unable to continue my career as a teacher in a lively classroom. Yet I am proud of myself for returning to work in a less demanding role, which in actuality is one of the most challenging things I have ever done. I still feel upset with myself when I struggle in conversation. It’s tiring trying to listen to conversation or to communicate for long periods of time. It’s tiring to be around noise. I am tired a lot of the time from trying to listen. I feel frustration in learning simple things again, such as keeping my balance whilst walking downhill. I feel frustration at there being so many questions that doctors don’t know the answers to. What caused my hearing loss? Is this going to happen to my right ear as well? Why do I often feel dizzy when I’m walking, yet rarely when I am running? Why does shopping centre lighting, stormy weather, and crowds of people, cause me to feel dizzy?

It has been a difficult year also for the people closest to me. I know it is hard for people to know what to say to comfort someone who is not ‘getting better’. I know it is difficult to know how to help. My friends and family have lived through this with me and have shown me overwhelming support. But, it is my boyfriend who has lived the experience closest to mine, and who has felt not only the frustration that I have, but has also learnt with me how to deal with my hearing loss. The unfaltering support, patience and care he has shown me, and continues to do so has undoubtedly given me strength to deal with the new challenges I now face.

This year has been difficult. Yet this year has had a huge impact on my personality, where my priorities now lie, and the way I view my life. I am stronger as a result of this year. It is also because of this year that I have realized the enjoyment I have in communicating through writing. By recording my experiences and thoughts in my blog, I have made sense of my feelings and gained strength. I hope also to have given others an insight into my world, and some of the difficulties experienced by someone with hearing loss.  Writing is a pleasure; one which I can thank that day in the auditorium for the moment the world to the left of me abruptly fell into silence.