Attack

It was a Monday morning and I awoke to the sound of my alarm. I had been sleeping well at night-time, for the past month or so, yet continued to wake up feeling drained. I was exhausted. I began to make my way through my morning routine, without the need to think about my actions. I methodically put the kettle on; took two mugs out of the cupboard (one for me and one for my boyfriend) and dropped tea bags into them; took out my water bottle from the fridge; and put a green tea bag into my flask, ready for work. I then headed to the bathroom to continue my habitual preparations for the day ahead.

Whilst in the shower, for a few moments I appreciated the feeling of the water on my head and body; washing away some of my sleepiness. Just as always, I began to cycle through the components of the advancing day in my mind; pondering over tasks to be completed during this time. And then it happened. Without warning, my eye-sight became blurry. I started to feel hot. Within seconds my surroundings inside the shower cubicle were spinning. I felt an uneasy disconnection from my body, similar to the feeling of unsteadiness that comes from drinking an excessive amount of alcohol. I could feel myself becoming short of breath. My ears were full with the feeling of pressure; causing a sharp pain. My legs started to feel weak, and I rapidly pushed my hands flat against the shower cubicle as I supported the weight of my body down towards the tray; moving into a crouching position. I needed air. I awkwardly forced the shower screen open. Then the nausea hit me; one last blow from the attack. I crawled to the toilet and allowed my head to bow heavily over the bowl. On my knees, my elbows pressed against the hard plastic of the toilet seat, I shakily positioned my arms upwards; enabling my hands to cradle my head in position. I stared wearily at the toilet water as it seemed to whirl around erratically.

After what I guess was about five minutes of extreme body weakness and breathing deeply into the toilet bowl to stabilize myself, I managed to crawl across the floor to where I had earlier dropped my night clothes. I was able to dress myself in my vest top and shorts and I slowly grasped the bathroom door handle; carefully testing the strength in my legs as I started to stand up. I began to walk the 15 or so steps towards the sofa. I was still feeling fragile. My body felt like it was in a continuous fall against the wall which I leant on with all my weight; shuffling through the kitchen into the living room.

I sat on the sofa and stared at my mobile phone. I couldn’t focus properly. I didn’t want to have to make the phone call. I didn’t want to have to call in sick again. I had only been back at work for a month since the summer holidays, and had already taken 2 days absence due to illness. I started to consider whether I could go to work. Could I cope with the motion and the crowdedness of the Metro train? Would I be able to walk up and down the stairs at school? Could I tolerate the classroom noise? Of course I couldn’t.

After making the call, I made my way to the bedroom, continuing to support myself with my hands against the wall. My boyfriend was still sleeping, as I slowly and carefully pulled my body onto the mattress and wrapped myself in the covers. I was cold. My boyfriend’s hand began to touch my hair, as if examining it with confusion; somewhere in the midst of sleep. I realized my hair was wet. I didn’t know whether I had finished washing it before the attack had happened. I didn’t wake my boyfriend. His alarm would be going off soon.

I spent the day on the sofa and slept away the hours. The reality of what had happened didn’t really occur to me until I woke up later that day.

Even though I often experience dizziness, I hadn’t had an actual vertigo attack since the day of my hearing loss; two years ago. This new attack brought the difficult times I had dealt with during the past two years, to the forefront of my mind. In the past, I’d been given numerous possible diagnoses to explain my hearing loss: Meniere’s Disease, Cochlear Hydrops, and Endolymphatic hydrops. Irrespective of the ultimate diagnosis, there was no escaping from the ramification of the abnormal fluctuation of fluid in my inner ear. Like a big slap in my face, this new attack forced me to comprehend the reality of my situation. I was never going to be able to get away from this. It wasn’t going to get any better. I was, in this moment of contemplation, emotionally back to where I was 2 years ago: scared at the prospect of living with this unpredictable condition.

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A consultation with the new specialist

Nearly six months after my sudden hearing loss I was in my Spanish hospital with my boyfriend, yet again for another consultation.

When I first entered the consultation room, I was dismayed to see yet another Ears Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist whom I hadn’t previously met. It was a specialist who was not aware of my story and who I skeptically assumed was going to ask me to repeat my story yet again, and then tell me that he was sorry, but due to lack of research on my condition, he would be unable to offer me any further help and that he would see me again in three months to see if there were any changes.

Before meeting with the new specialist I had carried out the usual hearing tests. As usual I was told that nothing had improved. The specialist had a friendly and sensitive manner. He asked me about how my hearing loss had occurred and whether I had previously had any ear related problems. Then he looked at my hospital notes and told me that my MRI scan was normal. This was probably about the third time I’d been told this information. He said there was some ‘shading’ in an area of the image, but I didn’t hear the rest of what he said, and he didn’t seem to speak about it with any importance. Then he looked at my results from my Brainstem Auditory Evoked Potentials test. He proceeded to explain to me what the results showed. This was the first time the results had been discussed with me in any more detail than just telling me that they showed the same as my hearing test – that I can’t hear in my left ear. He drew a diagram of the ear and showed how each peak on the graph produced from the test, related to different parts of my ear. The results showed that sounds weren’t being heard because sound wasn’t successfully reaching my ‘caracol’. In Spanish they call the spiral shaped part of the inner ear known as the cochlea the ‘caracol’; which translates as snail shell. So for some unknown reason, sounds weren’t able to be interpreted by way of my cochlea, and hence the relevant signals needed to hear, weren’t being sent to my brain.

The new specialist read my notes from the ENT doctor with whom I had consulted a month earlier in London. He didn’t agree with the diagnosis of Cochlear Hydrops as being the reason for my hearing loss. He explained to me that this is usually a condition that is not continuous and comes in episodes. Although I have the symptoms, mine are continuous, not sporadic. I continuously have pressure in my left ear. I am continuously deaf in this ear. My hearing doesn’t fluctuate. He told me however, that ultimately the diagnosis isn’t that relevant, as the main point of importance was now finding ways to help make things more bearable for me.

The new specialist then surprised me by asking me about how I was coping. I told him that the insistent pressure in my left ear was very uncomfortable. I told him that going outside into the noises of the city was also very uncomfortable and a habitual challenge for me. He commented in English and said that, “This kind of thing can make you crazy.” He told me and my boyfriend that I ‘have to be strong’. I told him that I know my situation could make someone crazy. I told him that I know I need to be strong. I told him though, in a friendly tone; appreciative of his even mentioning of these issues. This was the first time any hospital specialist had shown any understanding or even alluded to the difficulties I was facing with the everyday. He asked me about my work. I told him I was not currently at work due to my hearing loss. He asked me why. I told him that I was a teacher and that I worked with very young children. I explained the difficulties I had when I tried to return immediately to the classroom, when I first lost my hearing. I asked him whether he thought I would be able to go back to my teaching job. He said he thought I could try. He told me that everything will take time. I needed to adjust. He said that I am still relatively in the early stages of learning how to live with unilateral hearing. He stressed the importance of trying to return to my normal life and routine. When I told him how young the children were that I teach, he added, “It will be very difficult for you though.”

Then the new specialist widened the scope of his investigations. He asked questions about my kidney. I only have one kidney on my right side. He told me that hearing problems and kidney issues can be directly related, as the kidneys regulate the fluid in the body. My hearing loss was possibly an issue with the fluid in my inner ear. Often people with fluid problems in their ears are given diuretics to force the kidneys to excrete more salt in the urine. He was keen to try this measure, as the diuretics could possibly help with my ear pressure. However, he wanted to check first that it was safe to prescribe me diuretics. So he made an appointment for me to have a consultation with a nephrologist (kidney specialist).

He also asked about my jaw. Oh my goodness, I couldn’t believe it! From the very first moment I entered the hospital, at the start of my story, I had been asking the hospital doctors if the problems I have with my jaw could be contributing to the problem in my ear. I had been constantly told that there was ‘probably’ not a connection. This time I hadn’t even mentioned my jaw. The new specialist had asked me the question! He said that my jaw problems could also be a cause of pressure in my head and my ear, and hence could be making my condition worse. So he made an appointment for me to see a maxillofacial doctor (specialist of the head, neck, face and jaw).

He suggested I go to a private audiologist to discuss hearing aid options and ways of helping with my discomfort. He said that there were four options that could be worth trying:

  1. Wear a normal hearing aid in my deaf ear to try and amplify the sound to a level that might help to give me some hearing. It probably wouldn’t be a useful level of hearing, but it might help with the feeling of disorientation, tinnitus and pressure in my ear.
  2. If the first option didn’t work, then I could try a Contralateral Routing Of Signals (CROS) hearing aid. This type of hearing aid would take sound from the deaf ear and transmit it to the ear with better hearing. This could help me hear better in background noise.
  3. If the CROS hearing aid didn’t work, then there was an aid called a Bone Anchored Hearing Aid (BAHA). Having a BAHA would involve an operation where they attach a hearing aid on to a bone near the ear and it would pick up sound vibrations – this would obviously be a more invasive measure.
  4. There was also a device that could ‘mask’ tinnitus sounds in my deaf ear. This would play sound, or noises, or music, into the bad ear. Although I wouldn’t be able to hear the sounds, it could help with my tinnitus.

It was so refreshing to speak with someone who was curious about the other issues affecting my ear, and who seemed to genuinely want to help. Maybe this is the same treatment I would have received from any of the other ENT specialists at this point in my story; now that immediate treatment had been administered; now that we had waited for six months; and now that acoustic neuroma,  stroke, or an autoimmune disease had been discounted. Even so, this specialist had shown a deep understanding of the day-to-day issues I was facing. He knew about and acknowledged that I would be having some difficult days. This comforted me. I wasn’t being weak or over-accentuating my difficulties.  What I was going through was hard. It was supposed to be hard. I was dealing with it. I was having good days and difficult days. This was normal. Also, he explained things in so much detail, and had given us suggestions for further actions. I was incredibly grateful to have consulted with him. I now had a new plan with many elements, and I would be seeing him again in a month to discuss any new findings.

This time when leaving the hospital I didn’t cry. I walked out of the hospital with my boyfriend, breathed the fresh air, and was full of positivity.

A second opinion (and lots of medical terminology)

It was early in the new year, and my boyfriend and I had traveled to London for a second opinion about my condition. We arrived at the Ears Nose and Throat clinic, and were asked to complete a basic information form and to wait in the waiting room. The waiting room was enormous. There were plush sofas around the perimeter, and an elaborately decorated Christmas tree that dominated one side of the room. At the end of the room on the left, was a drinks machine that served all types of teas and coffees; all free of charge. We had done our research to find a specialist with lots of experience and with expertise in some of the issues I had been having. We were hoping to gain some more information and some understanding regarding my hearing loss.

When we first met the specialist, my immediate thought was that he looked older than the photo on the clinic’s web-page. He was smartly dressed; wearing a dark suit jacket, white shirt and a tie. His hair was dark with a generous scattering of flicks of silvery grey; additions to his jet black hair that had not been captured in his professional photo. As we entered the consultation room, he greeted us by shaking our hands. He dropped his pen as he walked towards his desk, and stooped down to pick it up. He had the slightly awkward air of a genius. He immediately starting asking questions and scribbling down information on his notepad. He was eager to see some previous medical notes, and grabbed at what I had brought. He continued to scribble down information. Whilst writing, he kept looking up at my face, and commented more than once telling me that he thought I was very pale. He had the nature of an accomplished professional, who seemed to be trying to find an answer to my problem, at an accelerating pace.

He started with some unusual tests. He asked me to stand up and I accompanied him to the corner of the room. He commented on my size saying, ‘there wasn’t much of me’. I was asked to walk in a straight line; stand still and balance; and to close my eye, put my hands together in front of me and march on the spot. When he asked me to stop marching, I opened my eyes and found that I was no longer looking at the same part of the wall as when I had started marching; I had rotated about 45 degrees. My boyfriend found this amusing. This test showed that I was somewhat off-balance. He also asked me to sit down and look him in the eyes, as he flung me from side to side. He asked me to lie down on a chair in a small room that was attached to the main consultation room, and again I had to look at the bridge of his nose as he flung me from side to side. This left me quite dizzy, and when he let go of me I swayed slightly to the left. Next I went to have some hearing tests. These were the usual tests that I had done so many times, and also tests of the middle ear, including a tympanometry and Eustachian tube function test.

After a short wait, we went back into the consultation room. The doctor told me directly, that I had lost 90 percent of the hearing in my left ear. He told me that there was also a small hearing loss in my right ear. There was also evidence of significant inefficient Eustachian tubal function in both ears; marked on the right side.  I had never been told so clearly the extent of my hearing loss, although I was very aware that it was severe. Nobody had told me that I also had a hearing loss in my right ear, and this came as a shock to me. He said that as the hearing loss in my left ear was so severe, it would be unlikely that a hearing aid would help me. This was disheartening. The specialists in Spain had given me some hope regarding some kind of aid. I appreciated this specialist’s candidness, even if it was difficult to receive this information. He then commented again about the paleness of my skin. He recommended that I get my Vitamin D levels checked, along with some other blood tests. I said ‘yes’ to all of his suggestions. He also suggested that I carry out a speech discrimination test of my (good) right ear, to see how well I understand speech.

I had my blood taken. Soon after, I was sitting back in the hearing test room, listening to an audio of someone saying words at different volumes. All I had to do what say what I could hear. It reminded me of a test teachers might give to young children or to children who are learning English as a second language. I found this test OK, until the quiet level, where I ended up saying word endings or just a single letter-sound that I could distinguish in the words. Everything happened at such a fast pace.

Then the specialist told me that he recommended me to have an Electrocochleography (ECoG) test of my (good) right ear. This test measures the electrical potentials generated in the cochlea—a part of the inner ear—in response to sound stimulation. He wanted to see if the test would show any evidence for the reason of the small loss of hearing I had in this ear. He stressed the importance of taking care of my right ear – my only hearing ear. So he squeezed anesthetic cream into my ear and we went downstairs to the waiting room for about half an hour while my ear became numb. Yet again, I had electrode pads stuck to my head. He rubbed my forehead harshly with the sandpaper, and was surprised at the sensitivity of my skin. I then lay back on the chair and I was attached by the electrode pads to the computer. An electrode was also fed deep into my good ear. Yet again I had the same feeling as when I had the steroid injections: the scratchy discomfort, deep in my ear and in the back of my throat. Yet again, a series of clicks were played into my ear.

The specialist explained the results of this test. He told me I had a form of a condition called endolymphatic hydrops in my (good) right ear. Endolymphatic hydrops (also known as Cochlear hydrops) is thought to be an early form of Ménière’s disease. Basically, it is a problem with the fluid in the inner ear. This diagnosis explained the pressure and feeling of fullness in my ears; the tinnitus; the hearing loss; and dizziness I had been experiencing. The specialist thought it was likely that the hydrops was also the underlying pathology affecting my left ear six years ago, when I had begun to experience tinnitus that had lasted three years. He felt I had probably had Cochlear hydrops in my left ear all these years, and it had subsequently resulted in my sudden sensorineural hearing loss.

After five hours of tests and consultations, we had a lot more information and a bit of a plan. I was to wait for the blood test results. I was going to take some more strong antiviral medication for 5 days, in case of the hearing loss being a result of a virus. After completing the anti-viral medication I was then to start inner ear vasodilator treatment by taking a medicine called Serc 16mg, for 4 weeks, to see if this had any effect on reducing the pressure in my ears.