Measles at age five left me with a severe hearing loss sensorineural and short-sightedness. Glasses corrected my sight but my hearing was poorly aided for over fifty years by ever smaller, more powerful hearing aids. An expert lip-reader at an early age, I enjoyed a full life working in Information Technology, raising a family and assisting other hearing impaired people.
I watched with interest the development of cochlear implants. Although I still had some hearing, it was very defective even with powerful hearing aids. By the new millennium people who had a little hearing were considered for implantation and in 2002, I was assessed in Cambridge and considered an ideal candidate, the only thing against me being well over fifty years of diminishing hearing.
Audiograms showed little hearing, but what I had was precious. With two hearing aids some music sounded good if I knew what it was, as my brain filled in the gaps. With a lip-readable face my perception was that I was hearing well. Take away the face and I would understand little. I didn’t hear much, but needed both ears. As with hands, each on its own was not nearly as useful as both together. The left ear was to be implanted because it had better discrimination. If the operation failed my left ear would be useless leaving my right ear which just gave me awareness of, and rhythm of, sound. If it worked I expected that the unfamiliar sound might be very upsetting at first, but with practice I hoped to interpret the new sound, understand much more and even use a conventional telephone. I decided to take the small risk.
The operation was straightforward, electrodes fully inserted, one night in hospital, a sore head and the surgeon was very pleased – he gave me a colour photo! My implant is a Med-El Combi 40+. My right ear was on its own for six weeks as my head healed. On switch on day in June 2004 I was pretty nervous. Mapping and fitting the external processor seemed to take a long time and at first the sound of voices was like incomprehensible Morse code – dah-dah-daaah-dah-dah-daah, etc. My voice gradually took a little more form as I listened to it. After practice I could tell the difference between the days of the week and get them right without lip-reading! The café was quiet except for anyone speaking (or laughing – I could tell the difference) close by. I felt as if I was in a vacuum having been used to the noise bombardment of hearing aids. On our way home in the car my husband said random phrases, words and numbers many of which I understood on the first attempt – amazingly I could understand him well in the car. We phoned our daughters for a chat – a little stilted but still a chat – very emotional. I was exhausted and vastly relieved. We were ecstatic – it worked – rather limited at that moment but this was only Day 1.
One week later in a test of random sentences without lip-reading, I understood 52% of words (compared to 11% with two hearing aids and 7% and 2% with each ear alone before the operation). In 3 months I was up to 88% and now after 28 months it is 96%!
I returned many times for remapping (11 in the first three months) and rehabilitation which involved working on problem sounds and sometimes listening to fast speech to get my brain to interpret sounds faster so that comprehension eventually came with less effort. Remote rehab involved telephone practice. Rehab goes on for as long as necessary as people progress differently. I still borrow audio-books (unabridged versions) and read whilst listening, trying to reach the point where I can cover the words in the book until I’ve understood them on the tape. Stephen Fry’s readings of Harry Potter are excellent! This way I also learn to understand different dialects. Daily my husband helps greatly by identifying new sounds or asking me what I can hear, so I continually add to my hearing repertoire. It is an on-going journey of discovery.
Blessed with an excellent result, the learning in the first weeks was exponential. After four months I could use telephones with ease, and was confident enough to speak to almost anyone face to face. The car radio (Radio 4) is fairly good if the speaker is clear. TV and cinema usually still require subtitles – I need to practise. Groups are difficult apart from those people close by. When flying, my walkman attachment fits into the earphone socket and I can understand some dialogue – the children’s programmes best! Music is not wonderful but far better than with hearing aids. Perhaps, because implants are primarily for communication, sustained sounds are interpreted as background noise and filtered out? I perceive sounds much better than the unintelligible noise that hearing aids gave me and can hear and recognise consonants most of which I could not hear at all with hearing aids.
Sounds gradually become familiar. I enjoy birdsong. I hear wind in reeds and halyards tapping on the masts of yachts and my knees crack as I go upstairs! I could go on and on. It’s amazing how many things beep in car and kitchen and hard to believe I did not hear them before. Some sounds are unpleasant, like sparrows, the clash of cutlery and crockery … some were alleviated by new maps, others I got used to. I am working on music. As with hearing aids I listen to familiar music and fill in gaps with my memory. I hope that sounds of music will become familiar and that I will eventually discover types of music which I can enjoy without prior knowledge. The most wonderful thing is that now I rarely hesitate to speak to anyone. My boundaries have become much wider, I feel connected and I rarely feel on the outside looking in.
I am so grateful to the staff at the Emmeline Centre in Cambridge. Having an implant was definitely the right decision for me!