Day four with my new ear

My boyfriend and I had planned to go to Cercedilla, a nearby mountainous town, an hour from Madrid by train. It is a beautiful town surrounded by nature, and is a perfect place for hiking. We were going there for the day to escape the busyness and noise of the city, and to enjoy a gentle walk in the mountains.

It was day four of wearing my hearing aid. I had already tested out my new ear whilst watching television and whilst walking outside. I was going to use this opportunity to try my new ear in some other, more challenging, situations; the Metro and on a train.

The first test was the Metro. I was standing with my boyfriend on the platform waiting for the train to arrive. Since losing the hearing in my left ear, and gaining a sensitivity to sound, the noise of the Metro approaching the platform can feel painful and unpleasant. I can feel it piercing deep inside my ears. Whilst wearing the hearing aid, this uncomfortable feeling was accentuated and my immediate reaction was to try and cover both ears with my hands in an attempt to soften the noise. When the train was approaching, a guy came to ask us for something. He was speaking to us and making animated gestures with his body. The noise of the train and his voice were processed by my hearing aid and were turned into a harsh series of beeps. I couldn’t understand what the person was saying. Every word he spoke made a metallic beeping sound when it reached my new ear. My boyfriend explained later to me that the guy had first spoken in Spanish. My boyfriend hadn’t understood the guy and had told him he was English; he hadn’t wanted to encourage conversation with the seemingly unsavoury character. The guy then replied in English, expressing to my boyfriend that he wanted to go to a café. I hadn’t comprehended any of this small exchange of words. I hadn’t even realized that the unusual character had spoken in two different languages. All the sounds of the Metro station were amplified in my new ear; the bell sound to signal the train approaching and the screeching noise of the decelerating train. My new ear was supposed to be helping me to hear better in the presence of background noise. This was not the case. The amplification of sounds and the accompanied beeping noises were dominating my listening skills, which in turn was distorting and obstructing the understanding of my good ear. Normally, without any hearing aid, I could have moved closer to the guy who came to speak to us and put my good ear next to him. I would have been able to hear some of what he was saying. The hearing aid had actually hindered any chance I had of following the conversation. I felt a momentary sense of deflation crushing me. Confusingly however, I also felt some optimism. Although the metallic noises I was hearing in my new ear weren’t actual words and although they were distorted and difficult, it was still comforting to hear something; anything in my deaf ear.

Whilst sitting on the Metro I also noticed something positive. I was sat next to a girl who was sitting on my deaf side. She was talking to her friend who was standing up next to her. Normally everything would fall into silence on my deaf side on the Metro, and I would be oblivious to the world to the left of me unless I turned my head to see the activity. But this time, with my new ear, I was faintly aware that the two girls were speaking. Although I couldn’t hear any helpful letter sounds or words, I was hearing a slight beep for each syllable they were speaking.

The second test was the train station. On entering the train station I simultaneously entered my bubble of noise. Noises of train announcements and the chatter of people merged together. In large covered spaces with many sources of noise, the sounds seem to bounce off one another and encircle me; forcing me into my bubble. It is a bubble of misunderstanding and bewilderment. It is a bubble of pressure that dominates the inside of my head and ears. It is a bubble of isolation. My new ear was supposed to be helping me to hear better in the presence of background noise. Again, this was not the case.

As to be expected, the train was also bustling with the chatter of adults, and with the weekend excitement of children’s voices. On the train I opened the battery compartment of my hearing aid on my deaf side, so as to stop my new ear picking up the train noise. I decided that I would prefer my left ear to be in its world of deafness; ignorant to the bustle that surrounded it. I played music from my iPod into my good ear. It was a beautiful sunny day. I’d been avoiding wearing earphones. I’d been avoiding music. It had previously felt too intense in my good ear. But on this day, above all the chatter and train noise, it felt amazing to be listening to music in my little world. On this day, although the tests of my new ear had proved somewhat disappointing, my body was showing me that it was starting to adjust to my unilateral hearing. Being able to listen to music for a short time without too much discomfort was a small but wonderful improvement. It was some encouragement. Small triumphs were spurring me on. During the train ride, with my music playing and the sun shining, and with my view of Spanish countryside whizzing past my window, I was holding back little tears of contentment.

Advertisements

My new ear

A week later I returned to the private hearing healthcare centre to receive my Contra Lateral Routing of Signal (CROS) hearing aid; my new ear!

The audiologist came to greet me, and she took me into the room with the desk, where I had previously had my consultation the week before. She introduced me to another man who was going to be my translator. On meeting him, I did not feel the immediate sense of trust, or reassurance that I had felt with my previous translator. I asked him if he would like to sit down next to me, and he declined; choosing to spend the entire time standing up near the door, where he paced around a small area of floor, occasionally pausing to lean against the wall.

Immediately I was shown the hearing aid. The CROS hearing aid helps one ear, yet comes in two small parts: a single microphone and a single receiver contained in two individual devices. They were the sandy brown colour I had chosen with the guidance of the audiologist. They were very small with clear little tubes and buds on either end to fit into my ear. The first thing the audiologist showed me to do, was how to insert the batteries. She opened a small compartment, pulling gently at the bottom of the aid, and carefully placed in the circular battery. She peeled off the protective sticker that was covering the battery and told me that as soon as the paper was off, the battery would start to use power. I then took the other hearing aid to insert the battery, and copied her demonstration carefully. She told me to open the battery compartment when I take the aids out at bedtime, so as to reduce the power drainage. She fitted them both into my ears, and they were connected to wires and her computer. She then played sounds into my good ear and I had to do the usual test of putting up my hand when I could hear the beeps. Then she did the test of my deaf ear. There was a constant noise that sounded like a fan in the room coming from somewhere I couldn’t identify, and also background noise of people talking outside. It was difficult to focus. I could hear some of the beeps. I occasionally put my hand up when I thought I could hear something but wasn’t sure; due to the background noise distractions. But I could hear some quiet beeps, which was an improvement. She asked me how the hearing aids felt, and I told her that the sounds seemed to be a little too loud. She adjusted the program on the computer and the volume of the hearing aids reduced.

The audiologist then challenged me to insert the aids into my ears, without help, and she handed me a mirror. The right hearing device fitted easily into my ear. The left side however proved much more difficult. Since losing my hearing I have noticed a change in the shape of my left ear. If I put my finger in my ear as far as the little piece of cartilage that covers the entrance to my auditory canal, it feels as though the bony floor of my ear is raised. Hence the small hole that leads to the rest of my ear seems very much reduced in size. I used to wear foam ear plugs in my ears at night to sleep with, as I am a very light sleeper. The ear plugs used to mould and fit easily into my ears, and would stay in place all night. Now, when I try to put a plug into my deaf ear, it is difficult to find a successful position to insert it, and it almost always very quickly pops back out. I failed twice at trying to fit the ear mould of the hearing aid into my left ear. My ear was now red and my hands were shaking nervously as the audiologist and translator watched me intently. I figured out that I had to push the fitting down and then upwards whilst twisting it at the same time, to make sure it was fitted correctly inside my ear. When fitted, the hearing aids could hardly be seen, and the audiologist told me they were invisible.

The translator asked me how I had lost my hearing, and I told my story yet again. He asked the usual questions: Why did it happen? Was I receiving treatment for the pressure? How long ago did it happen? He asked me what my expectations were of the hearing aid: When are my difficult times? How do I think the hearing aid could help me? He commented on how I wasn’t a ‘typical’ customer, who he described as old, with some hearing loss in both ears. He kept telling me to not expect too much. I know that it would have been unprofessional of him to raise my hopes, but he was doing the opposite. He was making me feel naïve in my understanding of  the magnitude of my situation. I wonder if he realised how far I had come in my story. I wonder if he realised how much effort and courage it had taken to walk into the audiologists, make the appointment and talk yet again about what had happened; all in a foreign language… and still keep a smile on my face whilst speaking to them.

With my hearing aids in place, I said my goodbyes and thanked the audiologist and translator for their help. I was to contact my audiologist if I had any questions or needed any help with anything. My next appointment would be in a months time. I was to use the hearing aids for 2 or 3 hours each day for the first week, unless they felt OK, in which case it was fine to wear them all the time through the day.

I left feeling less optimistic than after my first appointment, but I was still hopeful.

The walk home was a noisy adventure. The beep of the traffic lights sounded uncomfortable and distorted. I walked past a big group of students who were all talking and who sounded like screeching bells. At that point I remembered what an old friend of mine told me when he first received his cochlear implant. He told me that the chirping of birds sounded like bells, and the noise of peoples voices sounded like Mickey Mouse. I knew this wasn’t exactly the same type of circumstance, but it was similar. I was sure it would take time to adjust to the new types of sounds I was hearing through the hearing aid. I spent my time on the walk home, pressing the volume button up and down to see which level felt most comfortable.

When I arrived home I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I think I was feeling a little bit in shock. I was also feeling some disappointment due to the fact that the sounds from the aids were making me feel very uncomfortable. I was scared they weren’t going to help me. I was still hopeful though. I was home alone, and wanted to test my new ear by talking to someone.  I kept trying to test the hearing aids out. I clicked my fingers near to my ear, but couldn’t hear the sound. Then I tried playing a YouTube song on my phone – Don’t Think Twice Its Alright, Bob Dylan – holding it to my deaf ear, as if it was a phone call. I could hear some of the song, but I wasn’t sure which ear I was hearing it in though. I wanted someone to call me on my phone to try out my new ear. I waited for my boyfriend to return home from work, eager to have a conversation with him.

Silly Deaf Moments

I am taking another pause from my story to talk about the amusements of being deaf. I am not saying that being deaf in one ear is funny; it’s not – it can be difficult and frustrating. But, if I am able to see some humour in difficult situations, surely it is much healthier than finding distress in them. This is not always easy, as everything still feels very raw to me, and I am still in the process of accepting that I now have unilateral hearing and am coping with the issues this brings. But I aim to start smiling and laughing more, and to see the funny side in what I have started to call my ‘silly deaf moments’; silly things that happen in reaction to everyday occurrences, because I am unable to hear in my left ear. So, here are a few examples of these ‘silly deaf moments’…

One of the first days after experiencing sudden sensorineural hearing loss in my left ear, I was at work and a colleague called my name. My classroom is connected to another classroom by a sliding door. When this door is open, the two rooms turn into one long classroom. I was standing in the middle of both rooms, where the sliding door is situated; talking with two other colleagues. When I heard my name, I turned around to my right, to address my friend who was calling me. Hmm, she wasn’t there. Then I proceeded to look around in confusion to try to locate my colleague. I was spinning around baffled, trying to locate my friend. After a few seconds I found her. She was standing far across the classroom from me, to my left. By the time I had realized where she was, my other colleagues were giggling at me. I started to laugh too, but I felt bewildered. Why hadn’t my colleague been to the right of me, where I thought she was? – after all, that was where I had heard her voice coming from. I later realized, that since I can only hear in my right ear, my brain now assumes that sound is always coming from my right. So, calling my name from any direction will now confuse me, and I will spend a few seconds scouting the area to identify where the voice is coming from. Oh, and if my name is called outside from across the road or street, well I don’t stand much of a chance of having any idea where you are. It would be quicker to come over to me instead! I actually thought that maybe my brain could learn to identify where noises are coming from; maybe using the tone or volume as a clue. But, after understanding my situation more, I realize that sound localization is the job of two ears, not one.

One day, I was sitting on a seat at the end of a row, on the metro. I was thinking that I could hear someone playing the accordion somewhere far down to the right of the train from where I was sitting. I was sitting and feeling relaxed as I tried to focus on the tune that was being played. I saw a woman opposite me looking at something next to me, so I turned to see what had caught her attention. I turned to my left, to where she was looking, only for me to jump up in my seat and letting out a little yelp; startled to see the accordion player was actually standing right next to me, on my deaf side!

There are moments where I fail to respond when I’ve been spoken to, because people have addressed me from my deaf side. I have been seeing a chiropractor recently (something I will talk about more in future posts) and one morning I was standing in the waiting area; waiting for my name to be called. The waiting area is a small corridor and serves a few small private practices; each one occupying a single room. It was busy, and there was a low rumble of chatting voices. As all the seats were occupied, I had positioned myself so that I was standing near my chiropractor’s door. I had waited a while, and turned around and was surprised to see my chiropractor standing there next to his door, looking a bit awkward. I hadn’t expected anyone to be there and my body jumped up slightly in surprise.  I could see his mouth moving, and as I turned so that my hearing ear was facing him, I realized he was calling my name. I have no idea how long he’d been trying to get my attention! His office was to the left of me, and so I was never going to be able to hear him call my name.

Another time where I didn’t respond was when I was in England and I went to get my eyebrows shaped. I was with my sister in a busy shopping centre in a department store. We were surrounded by a disarray of sounds. There was loud nightclub-style music playing and the sound of people talking too. I was greeted by the lady who was going to shape my eyebrows, and I sat down in the chair. My sister went to look around the shop, and so I was alone with the lady. A few seconds later I turned to my left and realized the woman was talking to me! She looked exasperated and was asking me to sit further back in the chair. I immediately shuffled back and out from my mouth the words, “I can’t hear in this ear!” burst out apologetically. In the moment I felt quite upset, but looking back now I wonder how long she had been waiting for me to move back in the chair. I wonder what she must have been thinking about me when I not only failed to respond to her instruction, but didn’t even look at her for quite some time!

One of the most ironic situations is that of waiting for an appointment with an ENT specialist in the hospital. It is a small waiting area that is usually bursting with people. When you approach the waiting area you are greeted by the loud roar of an industrial-sounding fan. In this waiting area, the sound seems to be bouncing from wall to wall; sounds of the fan, people’s words, shouting from nurses, and the slamming of consultation room doors. The patients sit on the edge of their seats. If the patients have similar struggles to me, I am guessing they are all trying desperately hard to hear the nurse when they call their name above the muddle of noises that surround them. Nobody wants to miss their name being called. Usually the wait to see a specialist is at least an hour and appointments are scarce. This is the chance to speak about issues that may be ongoing, painful, upsetting, frustrating – you don’t want to miss your name being called and miss your chance to speak with the specialist. One day an old lady asked me to tell her when her name was called. I explained to her that I too was also hearing impaired and finding it difficult to hear anything. We both agreed to tell each other if either of us thought one of our names may been called! I wonder why the ENT specialist rooms are positioned in the corridor with the fan. I wonder why they chose such a small enclosed space.  I wonder why the nurses haven’t thought of writing the next patient’s name on a piece of paper which they could then display as they shout the names; so that people with hearing impairments could read their names if they fail to hear them. Or even better, invest in a LED message sign display with the patients names displayed.

More recently, I went for lunch in a restaurant with my boyfriend.  I went to the toilet and was washing my hands. It was a small bathroom, and there were two toilets side-by-side and a sink positioned slightly in front of the entrance to one of the toilets. I was alone in the bathroom…well, so I thought. I spent some time washing my hands and looking at my teeth in the mirror. After a couple of minutes, I thought I saw something from the corner of my left eye. I turned around, and was startled to see that there was a woman watching my sink routine! The poor lady must have been in the toilet cubicle, and was now trapped in the doorway, unable to leave the cubicle because I was unwittingly blocking her way out! I hadn’t known she was in that toilet. I hadn’t heard her open the toilet door. I hadn’t heard if she had asked me to give her space to exit the cubicle. I hadn’t even acknowledged her until the moment I turned around in bemusement!

My life is now full of these ‘silly deaf moments’, and there are obviously going to be many more of them. I wonder when the next one will be, and what will happen?!