I laid awake last night thinking about whether to get a second cochlear implant.
The first one was done in 2015. My right ear. It has worked well. It’s very functional. Bionic. If you don’t know, a cochlear implant basically replaces the cochlea in one’s ear with tiny electrodes which are then connected via magnets to a receiver worn over one’s ear. A cochlear implant replaces the faulty hearing one had with an electronic ear. The installation of a cochlear implant requires a hole drilled in one’s skull, the placement of the electrodes, testing of those electrodes while one is still “under” and several months of programming to adjust the receiver to optimum sound performance. It also, almost all of the time, means the elimination of a person’s natural hearing in the implanted ear.
In other words, I have no residual hearing in the implanted ear. However, I do have some remaining hearing in the other ear.
This means that the trade-off for a second cochlear implant will almost assuredly be the elimination of any remaining natural hearing.
This is a profound matter. Right now, without my cochlear implant receiver or the hearing aid in the other ear, I can hear myself speak. The sound is muted and very distant, but when I say words, I can hear them, however slightly. I can also hear my husband, some if not all of the time. I can hear the smoke alarm in the house, sirens if the ambulance is coming right down my street, a pile of dishes crashing to the floor. You get the idea.
So, I worry that if I get a second implant and a catastrophe is to occur – another pandemic, a global power outage, some dystopian life that so far I’ve only read about when there would be no batteries and no way to charge my receivers – that I would be left completely deaf in the world. I would be so deaf that people could shout and scream at me, and I would have no idea what they were saying. I wouldn’t hear myself shouting or screaming.
So, that’s the price.
The benefit is vastly improved hearing. People who have had what they call bi-lateral implants are overjoyed with the difference. But they are the ones who already calculated the price and decided it’s worth it.
In the dark, I thought: if I was on my deathbed this very minute, would I want to hear Willie Nelson sing “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain” in stereo, both of my ears hearing every intonation, every guitar pluck, or am I satisfied with replaying the song as I remember it in my head from twenty years ago? One implant allows me to hear the words – to know what song is playing on the car radio. That is huge. But the voices are flat, synthesized somehow. Is that what I want for the rest of my life?
And somehow this question pushed me over the edge. If I want this one thing when I am leaving this world, what is the price I am willing to pay?
Oh, there are other things. All of this doesn’t hinge on Willie Nelson.
There is greatly increased ability to maneuver the world. Hearing well is such an enormous advantage with implications from the mundane – comments made by the man next to me at the symphony – to the critical – perhaps someday refereeing doctors’ conflicting opinions about what should happen next. One cochlear implant makes a difference; two would approach normal hearing. Being like normal people, like how I used to be back, oh, I don’t even remember when, a long time ago.
In the night, so much of this debate in my head was about music. How much I miss music, how the music in my head brings just slices, thin layers of thick songs, of ways of being, of the comfort songs and lyrics and melodies once brought me. I went on in my life with my bad hearing and then my new bionic ear without all of that and thought I didn’t miss it. But I do. And in the end, I guess, what I want to hear are those other voices.
I want to hear everything. I think it’s worth the price, but I worry.