Waking up: My Septoplasty Story – Part 2

I awoke from a deep satisfying sleep with my first memory being a blurry vision of my boyfriend. Well, it was rather the shape of my boyfriend in a burgundy haze; the colour of the top he was wearing. I was moving past him in my bed. Bleary eyed, I blew him a kiss. He followed me into a recovery room. The room was brightly lit, and my eyes slowly started to focus. I excitedly told my boyfriend that I had been dreaming. I was so hungry and my throat was sore. I recollect eagerly telling the nurse that I was hungry and that although I didn’t eat meat or egg; that fish was okay. Maybe this was only a thought? My boyfriend told me later that he spent quite some time asking me whether I wanted to keep my mobile phone with me whilst staying in hospital overnight. I couldn’t make the decision. This scene is a confused dream rather than a memory to me. I saw the nurse gesturing with her arm and saying, “Adios”; requesting my boyfriend to leave. He gave me a kiss. He told me that my nose was bandaged, but that I looked okay.

Shortly, I was feeling more awake. There had been only one other patient in the room when I had arrived, and they had since been wheeled away. Now there was just me, in a space large enough for 5 more beds. There was a finger clip attached to my left index finger, which I believe measured the oxygen in my blood. Adhered to my chest in a seemingly random pattern, were circular stickers with electrodes to monitor my heart; these were attached to a machine situated behind my bed. Wrapped around my right arm was a blood pressure cuff which every hour, on the hour, inflated and took my readings. I was intravenously being administered, a steady supply of saline solution, antibiotics and painkillers. I was extremely well monitored.

There were numerous nurses that came to visit me and to check my vital signs. One of the nurses, evidently meaning well, spoke directly into my deaf ear; her lips pressed against it, with the intention of aiding my hearing. She must have been informed of my hearing loss beforehand, although evidently she hadn’t been briefed on which particular ear was affected. I didn’t have the energy or the emotional resolve to tell her that her efforts were being wasted on this ear. Later, after I guess a lack of adequate response on my part, she realised she was speaking into the wrong ear, and for the rest of the time she replicated her close-talking technique, into my hearing ear. I appreciated her committed determination to help me understand the proceedings. The dark green bed sheets were straightened by two other nurses, and within less than an hour of waking up I was happily straining my eyes to read a magazine. I didn’t want to go back to sleep yet. I already felt like I’d had a period of concentrated rest, albeit brief. I wanted to be conscious. I didn’t like the idea of being unaware of the activity around me.

I asked the close-talking nurse if I could go to the toilet; assuming she would hook my IV bottles onto the moveable pole, so I could wheel it behind me as I walked. Unfortunately, I was mistaken. The nurse collected something from a small cupboard and then returned to my bed with the object in question. It was a bedpan made of a thick paper material. She lifted up the dark green sheets and placed my paper throne in position and then walked away. Well, after a few minutes I concluded that there was no way my body was going to allow this to happen. Maybe it was a result of the anaesthetic. Maybe it was simply due to the fact that I hadn’t consumed any liquid all day. Or maybe, and most probably, it was because my body was in a state of stubborn shock. The toilet was only a few steps away from me bed – Why couldn’t I attempt to go there? I was lying down – Surely I couldn’t pee whilst lying down!? The nurse took the bedpan away after quite some time, without much comment.

That night was a restless one with merely fragments of disturbed sleep. My nose was packed with gauze-covered cotton, and there was a pad of gauze taped underneath my nostrils to soak up any blood. I also had gauze and tape wrapping around the outside of my nose. I could only breathe through my mouth. I was thirsty, yet I was only allowed a few sips of water that night, before the lights were turned down. I guess this, and the introduction of the paper throne, was part of the aftercare procedure for patients following anaesthesia. I had to sleep propped up at an angle to allow the warm trickle of blood from my nose to drain into the gauze. There was a clock on the wall to the left of me, and I lay watching the movement of the hands. I slept for what seemed like half an hour, yet after observing the clock, I realized only a couple of minutes had passed. Time was behaving strange. I guess this was a consequence of the anaesthetic, or the drugs I’d been given. There was a young male nurse who checked on me every hour during the night; each time making a note of my vitals. With each check he asked if I needed anything, and if I was okay. Between his checks I realized he was asleep in a chair around the corner from my bed. Early in the morning he asked me if I wanted to try and pee again. I agreed. I hoped this time I would allowed to use the facilities. But to no avail. He was soon sliding my paper throne into place. I waited and waited, urging my body to allow this unfamiliar process to happen. And then finally it did! The nurse seemed very happy with my achievement and exclaimed “Muy bien”! I had the impression that this had been a prerequisite task to be accomplished before my release. I breathed a befitting sigh of relief.

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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…

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 🙂

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…