I wear this thing on my head. Looking at it now in the photo, it strikes me as enormous, a contraption. I wonder why people don’t just stop in their tracks and ask me what it is. But they never do. It’s like seeing someone with an artificial leg and wanting to inquire about how it works but being compelled to ignore it. What artificial leg? I didn’t see an artificial leg, did you?
This is the receiver (behind my ear) that captures sound that travels through the wire to the round thing (which is actually a magnet) and transmits the signals through my skull to a twin round thing inside my head which then sends the signals along several wires to 22 electrodes hanging out in my cochlea. The electrodes recreate the function of the nerves in my cochlea, sending the sound signals to my brain to be made sense of.
All of this is programmed electronically to fit specifically with the nature of my hearing loss. The system was calibrated and re-calibrated for a year after surgery by audiologists at the Medical College of Wisconsin. With the implant activated (receiver on) and the hearing aid in my other ear, my sentence comprehension is in the 90th percentile (having been in the low 20’s prior), single words are lower (60’s). Without the receiver and the hearing aid, I am very close to completely deaf.
You’d be surprised how at home with that I can be – the being almost completely deaf. I have a lot of practice living inside my head. It’s homey there. There aren’t a lot of questions or banter but there are no arguments either. Still, living that way, cut off from most sound after a lifetime of hearing sound, is isolating and difficult. So the cochlear implant has been like a hearing rebirth. I hear things. I hear people. I hear the car radio. I hear birds.
But I don’t hear everything. I still have to position myself in meetings so I am able to see people’s faces. Family dinners where everyone is talking at once are impossible. So I drink a fair amount to keep myself occupied. I ask questions that have long answers, stories are best. I have a dozen years of signals with my husband at the other end of the table so if I’m really lost and want not to be, he live captions the conversation for me. That’s rare though. I long ago decided I don’t need to know everything that’s going on.
One on one conversations are lovely. I can even have a conversation with someone while driving the car, sitting side by side. It’s hard to describe what a big deal that is. I don’t have to face someone to talk to them. That’s wild.
This also means I can use the phone. A single voice, faceless, I can hear that. They’ve tested me and my comprehension is terrific but years of having to abruptly end conversations because I couldn’t decipher what was being said have given me a phone phobia that won’t quit. It’s a residual effect of hearing loss — like phantom pain in an amputated leg – well, not really. A person gets used to being incapacitated and it can be strange giving that up.
Tonight at the ball park, my husband told me about a little boy he’d seen with two cochlear implants. I looked around in the crowd to find him – you know, show him he has a cochlear comrade in the world. Last year at the ball park, an usher took off his hat, turned around, and pointed at his cochlear implant and he immediately became my brother. But the little boy was gone. My husband told me he’d talked to his mom, explained that I had a cochlear implant and it cheered her. “You don’t see very many people with them,” she told him. No, you don’t. That’s true.
I am the only person I know with a cochlear implant. It’s a marvel of science and it saved me from being completely erased by my hearing loss. So I’m oddly proud of it, proud of the hole in my head the surgeon drilled, proud that I took this step to reclaim myself. I’m glad for all of it. I wear my brown receiver as a badge of resilience and pluck. And great insurance.
Millions of people have untreated hearing loss. They lose jobs and fracture relationships because they can’t understand what is being said to them. They become depressed and lost, erased. Hearing loss, the stuff of old people jokes, isn’t a minor, inconvenient thing. It’s cataclysmic.
My hearing loss isn’t cured; it has been compensated for with amazing technology that should be available to everyone. Think about that while you watch the endless health care debate at the national level. This miracle that enables me to hear and function in the world isn’t available to everyone but it should be. Everyone deserves to hear the birds singing.
This post was written for my blogging friend Pat. Go visit her sometime – she’s an extraordinary photographer and often posts photos that are just startlingly beautiful. She blogs at A New Day: Living Life Almost Gracefully.