A meeting with the white rabbit

I was sitting opposite her, at her desk. The tip of her nose was a smudgy black, and the area between her nose and top lip was a thick oily white, with a modest covering of black whiskers. She looked at me through her thin, black rimmed glasses. When she stood up to make me a cup of tea, I noticed a cotton wool pom-pom tail attached to her lower back…

It had been 8 months since I had lost the hearing in my left ear. It had been 8 months since I had been living with tinnitus, dizziness, a sensitivity to loud noises, and the relentless pressure in my ears. It was almost 8 months since I had last carried out a day’s work. My headteacher had asked me to come to the school to attend a meeting with her. I was nervous. I wasn’t sure what the outcome of the meeting was going to be. I couldn’t bear to be around loud noises. Returning to my position as an Early Years teacher – a teacher of 4 year old children – was not a possibility for me at this time. I wondered if there could be any other options for me; any other work in the school that I would be able to do. I wondered if, due to the amount of time I’d been sick, I would be asked to leave.

I arrived at the school on a sunny Monday morning. As I pushed open the stubborn metal gate, I was filled with apprehension and nervousness. I could hear children playing on the other side of the gate. As I walked into the small patio situated in front of the school, I was immediately struck by a magnitude of colour. The children weren’t wearing their usual dark blue uniforms or stripy blue smocks, but instead they were all dressed in fancy dress costumes. It was Book Day in school. There were children dressed as Mr Men characters, The Very hungry Caterpillar, Dr Seuss’ Thing One and Thing Two, and animals, pirates and princesses. One of my colleagues promptly came to give me an all encompassing hug. This alerted the children to look my way, and when they realised it was me, a large group of children, all of whom I had taught the previous year, ran to me and hugged me from all directions. They were chatting to me excitedly; asking me lots of questions, showing me their costumes, and screaming with excitement. My ears were hurting from the noise. I wasn’t able to focus on any of the children’s words. However, it was wonderful to see them, and to be surrounded by the energy of young children again. I stayed for a few minutes on the patio, soaking up the excitement, and receiving more hugs from children and members of staff. I had been working in this school for three years. It was a small nursery and infants school, and I had made close connections with many of the staff members, and of course, with the children. It felt so nice to be immersed again in this vibrant world. It felt so nice to absorb a little of what to me, was my former ‘normality’. I missed working as a teacher. I missed my days of creativity. I even missed the absolute exhaustion I used to feel at the end of the school day; knowing I’d applied all my energy to give my pupils the best possible start to their education I could offer.

I entered the headteachers office. She was dressed as the white rabbit from Alice In Wonderland. She stood up from behind her desk, and as she gave me a hug. I momentarily became aware of the humour in the situation. The irony that such an important meeting, one that could possibly affect my future work opportunities in this school, would be between me and the white rabbit. It was bizarre and felt somewhat surreal. This is the nature of working in an infant school! She asked how I was doing. She told me that because I was good at my job, she didn’t want to lose me. I hadn’t prepared for this kind of compliment, and the weight of it triggered my emotions. I could feel tears welling up in my eyes, but refused to release them; breathing deeply and wiping away any evidence of my weakened character. The past 8 months had been difficult, and my confidence was drained. She asked me how I thought I would cope as a teacher, in a busy classroom. I was honest with her, and told her I would find it extremely difficult. She said she didn’t want to set me up for failure. She then went on to suggest some other possible roles for me. There was a language school that was owned by the same company as my current school, where I could possibly work; teaching small groups of adults. There was also a possibility of working with older children. However, these didn’t seem like favourable options. My teaching background was firmly rooted in Early Years education, and it was with this age-range where my teaching passion lay. We discussed other options, and came to the conclusion that working with small groups of children, away from the noise of the classroom, would be a role that could offer me the best chance of success.

After over an hour of talking about my options, my headteacher told me that she could offer me a position as a teaching assistant. It would include some time in the classroom as well as time working away from the classroom; with small groups of children who needed extra support in Literacy and Maths, and in learning English. I had an interest in working with intervention groups, and in Special Needs education. I also had experience in these areas. This role would be a way of seeing how I would cope in a classroom. I wouldn’t be letting people down or feeling guilty if I had to leave the position, as I wouldn’t be responsible for a whole class. I would earn just over a third of my wage as a full time teacher, but this was an opportunity for me to discover my potential and also recognise my limitations, whilst doing so in a familiar environment.

It has been nearly 3 months since my meeting with the white rabbit. I returned to work for the month of June. It was difficult. It was an experience that proved to be challenging and demanding on my diminished confidence, and hearing. My ears were painful at the end of the day, and on returning home each day I savoured times of quietness. But I completed the month, and am proud of what I achieved. I will be returning to the school after the summer to start the new school year in my new role as a teaching assistant.

I am now enjoying my summer holidays; feeling like I earned them, and am now up to date with my story 🙂

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More alternative therapy: Part 2 – A scattering of needles

…As soon as he entered the room, the practitioner began to work on my neck. It felt like he was using his fists; starting from my collar bone and then rubbing them up my neck with vigorous force. My skin began to burn from the friction, and the procedure felt like it would have been more relaxing and pleasant, had it been performed with massage oil. After about 10 minutes of the neck burning massage, the practitioner began to slowly push down on my head, encouraging it to bend towards each shoulder. I couldn’t believe how far I was able to stretch. It was as though the stinging massage had loosened all the tension in my neck.

The practitioner then walked away from the massage table and when he reapproached I could see him putting on some blue latex surgical gloves. He asked me to open my mouth. He then inserted his index finger inside my mouth and started to press gently inside my cheek. His thumb pressed lightly through the outside of my cheek, so that it met with his index finger. He massaged using a pressing motion, and in small circular movements. He mumbled something about the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). This massage lasted a few minutes and was repeated on the other side of my face.

Again the practitioner moved away from where I was lying. This time he exited the room. After a few minutes he returned, and whilst leaning over me he announced, in a matter-of-fact tone, “Acupuncture”. Oh, I wasn’t expecting that! I had never had acupuncture before. I asked if it was going to hurt. He assured me that it wouldn’t. He swiftly placed the needles in different points around my jaw, forehead, and the top of my head and my collarbone. The needles felt like they were being elegantly scattered in to place. The majority of the needles glided into my skin, with ease, and caused only a slight sensation of my skin being pricked. But, the insertion of a needle in the part of my jaw below my ear, where it forms an angle to make my chin, caused immediate and intense pain. A tender soreness radiated deep into my jaw. I was in pain, I exclaimed, and alerted the practitioner to the offending needle. He responded saying, “Oh, yes that one will hurt!” I was asked to continue to lie still for 20 minutes. I heard the sound of the door close as the practitioner left the room, and I was left listening to the soft jazz and wondering how many needles were in my face, and what I looked like.

After about 10 minutes a woman, who I hadn’t yet met, entered the room. She greeted me with a jolly sounding, “Hola” and told me as she was turning the needles slightly, that she was there to do just that. A few seconds later she left the room. I was again left lying motionless on the massage table, listening to the soft jazz.

Another 10 minutes passed and again the door opened. I could see from my lying position that it was the same woman who had turned the needles, who was now entering the room. She swiftly collected the needles from my face and neck, with the ease in which they had been placed.

This new practitioner was a comical woman. She told me that she was a nutritionist and she spoke to me about my diet. She presented me with a list of suggestions for a healthy diet, that she told me she had spent time translating from Spanish to English, and to excuse any unusual translations; blaming Google Translate for such errors. The focus of the diet was on eliminating animal products, dairy, and sugar. I was amused by the Spanish theme of the diet. I was allowed a typical ‘Spanish breakfast’ consisting of toasted soda bread with crushed tomato and olive oil; this was something I assumed the Spanish clients would refuse to abstain from. Chorizo and sugary products from the Pastelería (bakery) were ‘prohibited’. I started to think about the foods I liked. Hmm, there was no mention of Marmite or PG Tips tea…There was also a list of suggestions for dietary supplements including Vitamin C powder, Omega 3, a B vitamin complex and Magnesium.

Next I was asked again to sit opposite the mirror and she began to explain some exercises, which I would need to carry out three times a day. She laughed each time before beginning her explanation and demonstration. Maybe she was unsure of her translation. Maybe she found it humorous to watch our reflections as we performed the exercises together, which involved contorting our faces into different shapes, putting our tongues in different positions, and making clicking sounds with our tongues on the roof of our mouths.  These exercises I would most definitely be preforming at home, in private!

And so my experience of the craniofacial rehabilitation concluded.  I liked the holistic approach. I would continue to attend appointments every week in the hope that some of the pressure in my ear could be reduced…

More alternative therapy: Part 1 – skin popping included!

My consultation with the maxillofacial doctor, which by this time was 6 weeks previous, had concluded with her recommending some treatments for me to try. One of her recommendations was that I embark upon some craniofacial rehabilitation. This is a form of physiotherapy that can help temporomandibular (TMJ) (jaw joint) disorders, by using a variety of methods; understanding the relationship between the neck and shoulders, and the head and the TMJ.

This would be yet another alternative method I would try, to see if the pressure in my ear could be reduced, by addressing issues with my jaw. At this point in my story I was continuing to see my chiropractor, who was also doing jaw adjustments. I was also wearing my new night guard to help with my teeth clenching and grinding, whilst sleeping. Maybe this new therapy would complement the other things I was trying.

I had come to terms with the fact that the hearing in my left ear wasn’t going to return, and I was developing strategies to manage my life with unilateral hearing. However, I wasn’t prepared to accept that I would have to live the rest of my life with the constant discomfort of the feeling of pressure in my ears. The doctors had been unable to provide me with any medical-based relief, and so there was nothing to lose by seeking alternative help.

I arrived at the clinic on a Tuesday morning in May, and quickly found myself sitting in yet another waiting room. It was early in the day and I was the first person waiting. The clinic had a clean feel to it. There where white walls, and a light coloured wooden floor. In front of where I was sitting was a light wooden coffee table, with a white candle placed in the middle. Also on the table was a small metal tray in which sat an ornament of a Buddha, alongside some incense sticks. On the wall opposite me was a circular logo, with an outline of a head pictured sideways-on. Above the head, were the words ‘Integrative Craniofacial therapy’. To the right of me, hung a small print of one of Picasso’s paintings; adding a slight touch of lively colour to the otherwise sterile-white wall. Around the room were a variety of different sized leafy pot plants; some small, and perched on top of shelves, and some bigger and nestling into the corners of the building. The feeling of serenity was complete when the music speakers were turned on; initiating the low and warm tones of Nina Simone singing jazz, that floated around the clinic.

First I met the main specialist. I immediately recognized him from the website, and I believe it was he who had originally set up the practice. He asked lots of questions. This initial meeting was conducted at swift pace and with seemingly professional efficiency. He asked me questions about my general health, my diet, whether I was stressed, and about my sleeping patterns. He didn’t seem surprised when I told him about my sudden hearing loss. He scribbled down notes in scrawled handwriting. He felt around my neck and jaw and asked me to open and close my mouth a few times. He said I have issues with my TMJ muscle. He then took me to the room adjacent, where I met another practitioner, this time a woman.

The woman spoke in English and gave me a lot of explanation about what my treatment would consist of. She explained how first she would work on my lower back, and then gradually work upwards towards my neck and face. She began by massaging outwards from my spine. I sat in my underwear, on the edge of a massage table in front of a mirror. I watched as she worked her way up to between my shoulder blades. The therapist was very friendly and seemed to be using her time with me as an opportunity to practise her English speaking skills; which I was very happy about, as it meant that I was able to relax and forget any language-based stress. Whilst I was gazing into the mirror, focusing on nothing in particular, she told me she could see (without touching me) that there was inflammation on the left side of my jaw. I glanced up and looked at my face in the mirror. I could see the inflammation too. I had seen it in my reflection since the day I’d lost my hearing. Yet I couldn’t recall if there had been swelling there before my hearing loss.

I was then asked to lie down on my stomach, on the massage table. She started pulling at my skin around the base of my spine. As she pulled there was an occasional loud popping sound. This was a new experience that no amount of massages enjoyed and endured whilst living in Thailand could have prepared me for. It was quite a painful and uncomfortable experience, yet was also quite satisfying – like tension was being forced away from my back with every pop. The practitioner explained that she was releasing my skin from the bone.

I asked the practitioner if she’d ever seen anyone who’d suddenly lost their hearing. She said she had. She said she had seen people with all sorts of problems: problems with facial muscles, problems with senses, neck problems etc… The walls around the small massage room were decorated with posters. The posters were diagrams of the mouth and teeth. The posters showed the connection between the ears, nose and throat. The posters showed how issues with the neck can affect other parts of the body and face. Hmm, these were all familiar issues.

I then asked the practitioner more directly if she thought my jaw problems could be connected to my hearing loss. She immediately replied, “Yes”, as though it was a question that didn’t require any thinking time to answer. She then quickly added, “But obviously I don’t know what’s going on inside the ear…” When I told her that my MRI scan results had been normal, that there was no virus, that my blood tests had been normal, and that the doctors couldn’t explain my hearing loss, she said, “Well, if they don’t know, then 99 percent I think it could be connected to your jaw.” She also mentioned some other possible attributing factors including stress, serotonin levels, and hormones.

After about half an hour of massage, the woman left the room and the original guy returned…

Dentist mission part 1

I was sitting in a waiting room, waiting for an appointment to get a new night guard for my teeth. The type of mouth guard I needed was similar to the ones that boxers or rugby players wear to protect their teeth. This type of dental guard however is custom made, in order to fit individual mouths comfortably. I had been aware of grinding and clenching my teeth whilst sleeping, for at least 15 years, and had recently been waking up in the middle of the night with my teeth clenched tightly together. It was as though my subconscious was intervening and was now warning me when my teeth were engaged in this habit.

I already owned a mouth guard which I wore on my bottom teeth, and which had been made over 10 years ago, when I lived in England. I had worn this guard on and off for many years. In the past, when I went to the dentist, the only question I was ever asked about the guard was whether or not I had one. Nobody ever asked me how old it was. It had been expensive to have made, and I never thought about getting another one. It was only recently after my consultation with the Maxillofacial doctor; who seemed confounded that I had been using the same guard for over 10 years without having it adjusted, checked or replaced, that I realized perhaps I should get a new one. Of course, our faces change with age, as do or jaws and teeth.

The relationship between teeth grinding and clenching, and problems with the temporomandibular jaw joint (TMJ) causing problems with the ear are well documented. Curious that this connection was never mentioned by any of the many ear specialists I had consulted with. Typical symptoms of a TMJ disorder include ‘hearing loss, an earache, tinnitus, a sense of ear fullness, and vertigo’. Hmm I had experienced all of these, and continued to do so with all except the vertigo. I had even read stories of people who had suffered a hearing loss, and then after wearing a night guard for some months, their hearing had gradually returned. I was not hoping for this kind of miracle, but I did have some optimism that a new night guard could help reduce some of the pressure I was feeling in my ears and my head; this being the most difficult of my symptoms to tolerate.

The dentist surgery was in an old style apartment block. The waiting room felt as though it was probably once someone’s living room, many years ago. The room was square and dark padded sofa chairs lined three of the walls. There were no windows, and the walls were a plain dismal-cream colour. Around the bottom of the walls was dark brown skirting. There was a dark coffee table, situated in the space made between the chairs, with Spanish magazines arranged on top, in three piles. It was simply decorated, with two large framed pictures, one on each chair-lined wall. In the far corner, situated up high, near the entrance was a small box TV playing a Spanish soap opera with subtitles and low volume. As well as the low rumble from the TV, jingly-sounding elevator style music attempted to liven up the atmosphere. The surgery had looked so clean and white on the photos on the website. This definitely did not resemble the sterile and shiny images that had been advertised.

The receptionist called me to her office to speak with her. She had a confident, sociable and easy going attitude. I stumbled my way through the general health questions and she corrected my Spanish a few times, each time smiling with friendliness. She was the kind of person who made me feel like she immediately liked me. Perhaps it was the child-like Spanish I was speaking to her. For this appointment I hadn’t prepared any Spanish phrases or helpful vocabulary. I had become accustomed to meeting new specialists, doctors and receptionists, and the taking of basic details didn’t feel too scary anymore. I then went to sit back in the waiting room.

Shortly I was greeted by the guy with whom I had spoken on the phone, who had given me an appointment within 45 minutes of me phoning. He was younger than me, and spoke to me in a mixture of Spanish and American-sounding English, as he lead me to the dentists room. When I entered, I was met by a small old man, who was wearing a medical face mask, dentist overalls, glasses with magnifying mirrors attached, and whose bald head was covered in age spots. He muffled a greeting through his mask, and I wondered what he looked like under the medical disguise. He resembled a little mole, as he shuffled calmly around the room. He asked me why I was there and whether I had had a ‘ferula’ before. Ferula is the Spanish word for mouth guard – this was my new medical Spanish word of the day. He asked me to perform some jaw movements as he felt around my head and under my jawline. He also examined my teeth. He mumbled constantly into his face mask, directing his speech towards his companion. I could only hear and understand a little of what he was saying. The younger dental technician spoke to me in his broken American English and explained that they would need to do an X-ray to make sure the night guard would fit properly, and then they would be able to do the molds of my teeth. After that, the dentist left the room, and that was the last time I saw him during this appointment. The dental technician took me to a room to have the X-ray. Later he filled my mouth with pink putty to form the molds, chatting happily at me whilst my mouth was unable to move. I would return the following week…

My first run – Starting to feel normal again

Six months after experiencing sudden sensorineural hearing loss in my left ear I decided I was ready to go for a run. My body had been through a lot during the past few months. The hearing loss had been a shock. I had felt frightened and helpless. My body had felt like a vessel used for experimentation; exploring the effects of different types of drugs on my condition: anti-inflammatories, nasal sprays, intravenous steroids, intravenous anti-viral medication, injections of steroids through my ear drum and different types of vasodilators. My body had felt delicate and vulnerable; I had experienced side effects of weakness, loss of weight, low blood pressure, tiredness and dizziness. But enough was enough; I wanted to start to feel more normal again. I love running. Running always makes me feel happy. It makes me feel strong. It is also a time where I can completely forget about any worries or unwanted thoughts. I wanted to switch off from the recent past.

I had asked my chiropractor, the week before, as to whether he would recommend that I start running again. I remembered that, when I first met him, nearly 4 months ago, he had asked about what kind of exercise I did. Due to the problems I was having with my neck, he had encouraged me to take a rest from running until my neck was feeling better. At this time, I was also dizzy and taking medicine that my body was struggling with, and so didn’t feel strong enough to able to go running anyway. Yet now I wasn’t too dizzy and I wanted to feel stronger. I missed running and thought it might help cheer me up, and help me on my road to recovery. It was also another thing that I would be able to do for the first time with unilateral hearing – another experience to say I have tried, since living with single-sided deafness.

I waited for a few days after visiting my chiropractor, to go for my run. I wanted my first run to be on a sunny day. I wanted my first run to be a good run. I wanted to wake up, see the sunshine, and be spurred on by the beautiful Madrid weather, to go outside and have a go! I did exactly that. I had checked the weather forecast beforehand and it was going to be a nice day. I got out of bed when my boyfriend had left for work, and I rushed to the window. The sun was shining optimistically in the sky, and I decided today was the day.

Putting on my running clothes, I noticed how my body had changed since I had last worn them in the summer before I lost my hearing. My legs were thinner and my bottom was flatter and my stomach looked small and weak.

I walked briskly for 15 minutes to the nearby running track. It is difficult to run on the streets of Madrid as there are always lots of people around, even during the daytime. I didn’t want to feel vulnerable whilst stuck in the traffic of people. I enjoyed the sun, and breathed the air; taking strong breaths to fill my lungs. I find that when I go running, I realize what a small part of my lungs I actually use during everyday activity. Shallow breathing is a habit of mine, as I am sure it is for many people. It’s almost like we forget to breathe, and it’s actually quite an effort to fill your lungs with every breath, when you’re not used to doing it.

When I got to the track, I was surprised at how many people were there enjoying their morning exercise. I immediately started to run; making sure I was moving slowly and focusing on keeping my shoulders slightly back and good posture. I was listening to a storytelling podcast though my running earphones. I didn’t pay attention to the noise of the tinnitus in my ear that resounds with increased stubbornness when the sounds of the outside world are blocked by ear phones. I didn’t pay attention to the fact that I could only hear the story in my right ear. I was purely happy. I was running in the sunshine, enjoying listening to stories. I was feeling normal again.

The only time I thought about my hearing loss and the pressure and tinnitus in my ear, was when I actually realized that I hadn’t thought of these problems.  So the only time I thought about these issues was actually thinking about the absence of thinking of them! Exercise is well known to be a distraction from life’s worries. This was my proof. My first time running with unilateral hearing was a success.

I sent my sister a message later that day, telling her about my achievement. She replied and wrote that she was so glad that I had been for a run and that I was ‘getting my Carlyness back’ 🙂

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.

Testing and Hope

Less than a week following my consultation with the new specialist, I went to meet with a private hearing healthcare professional to discuss hearing aid options. When I’d made my appointment I had asked if there was anyone who spoke English. My hearing loss in itself has brought communication difficulties. Trying to manage it and to make advances with consultations in a second language has added extra challenge; an extra layer to tackle and deal with. The receptionist said she only spoke a little English. I wasn’t sure if I had managed to convey my question clearly as to whether there was an audiologist who I could consult with in English; not whether she, the receptionist, spoke English. Of course I am trying to learn Spanish, and always try to communicate with people in shops, restaurants and cafes in Spanish. But when discussing something as important as my health, and what could possibly also be a big investment (hearing aids can be very expensive), I wanted to make sure I had optimum chance of comprehension and the ability to ask questions and to communicate my needs and feelings successfully.

I arrived alone and very nervous. Not only was I anxious at the prospect of yet again trying to convey, in Spanish, the fact that I had ‘suddenly’ lost my hearing in my left ear, but also because this was the first step to a possible big change in the way I live my life. I was admitting to myself, and making peace with the fact, that I wasn’t going to be able to hear again in my left ear. I hoped to gain some support. I hoped to gain some closure. I was also putting myself again, in the vulnerable position to perhaps be told that there would be nothing I could try that could help.

I sat in the waiting room, for about 5 minutes, and then was greeted by a friendly looking Spanish woman in a white jacket who said ‘hello’ to me in unconfident-sounding English. A man followed the woman, and he shook my hand and greeted me with a much more comfortable version of ‘hello’.

I was led directly into a hearing testing booth. The woman who I assumed was the audiologist, went through the door to the other side of the booth, and sat opposite me; observing me through a transparent screen. The man came into the room with me and began to explain the procedure in English. I was incredibly relieved – this man was here solely to translate for me. He explained that they were going to do different hearing tests to see if there was any type of hearing device that could help me. The man then joined the woman on the other side of the glass. Next proceeded a series of different tests.

I carried out the usual Pure Tone Audiometry hearing test; raising my hand every time I heard the ‘beep’ sound in my hearing ear. The man gave me a thumbs-up gesture after my first test – the testing of my right ear. Then they tested the left (deaf) ear. As usual they had to play the sound of wind into my good ear, whilst testing the deaf ear. My head was conducting the sound. My good ear could hear the sound that was being played into my bad ear, when there was sound played at loud levels.  The wind noise was to distract my good ear from hearing the sound and confusing the results of my left ear. As usual I could only hear a few beeps. They then carried out the Bone Conduction test. This tests how well sounds transmitted through the bone are heard. As usual, I could not hear anything for this test, in my left ear. Next they did a Loudness Discomfort test. For this test, the audiologist played increasingly loud sounds into my ear, and I had to say when the sound was uncomfortable. I was glad they were carrying out this test; one which I hadn’t previously done. I had been struggling with everyday sounds, and my tolerance of noise, especially when loud, was noticeably lower than before I lost my hearing. I guess it is important for audiologists to perform this test when deciding on appropriate hearing aids: since hearing aids amplify sound, the audiologists need to ensure this sound is within the comfortable range for their customers. Next they performed a Word Recognition test which tested my ability to correctly repeat back words at a comfortable loudness level. The audiologist said words and I had to repeat them. The words were in Spanish, and I joked that it was like a Spanish language test. They assured me jokingly that I wouldn’t be marked on pronunciation. I carried out the test, in a language that I am still learning; I struggled with the rolling of my r’s for some of the words.  My right ear seemed to cope with this test with ease. My left ear struggled. All I heard in my left ear were some distorted noises; high pitched and mostly two syllables.  I couldn’t relate the noises to letter sounds or words. I couldn’t verbally make the strange noises I was hearing. I just shook my head after each distorted word. Then the audiologist changed a setting, and I could hear every word she said in my left ear! It was an extremely painful level of loudness and seemed high pitched. But I could hear, and this was amazing! I was hearing words! Brimming with emotion, I repeated back, in my best Spanish, the words she was saying. The audiologist and translator spoke to me through the glass about how the audible sound in my left ear felt. I told them that it was wonderful to be able to hear, but that it was very uncomfortable.

Next we went into a room with a desk, and the audiologist and translator spoke to me about what they thought would be my best option. The audiologist told me that the only option she thought that would work for me would be a Signia Siemans Pure Contra Lateral Routing of Signal (CROS) hearing aid.  I was told that as there was only the tiniest bit of hearing in my left ear, they couldn’t promise it would be a great help. But they said they might be able to get me 30 percent hearing…maybe 40 percent. The main benefit would be that I would have more chance of being able to hear better in background noise. Using this technology, a hearing aid-like device on my deaf side would use its microphone to pick up sound from that side and send it to another instrument at the better ear; wirelessly via bluetooth. The sound would then be introduced into the good ear. Wow! It sounded perfect! They showed me an app I could get on my phone that I could use to change the settings. If I was in a restaurant I could make the microphone focus on where the people were sitting, e.g. if they were positioned in front of me, I could press the corresponding areas of a diagram on my phone, and the microphone would focus on these areas. There was a setting for music. If I wanted to go to a live music show, I could press a button and it would pick up the music in surround sound. I told them I would like to try the device, and they asked me what colour I’d like. I hadn’t even thought of this! I asked the audiologists opinion, and she suggested one that matched my hair colour.

I had moulds taken of my ear and was given an appointment for a week later, where they would fit the hearing aid and show me how it works. I would be trying to use it for an hour or so each day, and then increase the time every day, and would have regular updates with the audiologist.

Finally, some hope.