When Your Eyes Are Your Ears

For the first few years of my life, it was a very quiet space in which I lived. Yes, I assume I could hear my dog bark, apparently hear the many stories and books that were read to me, perhaps hear the words of family who were in my direct line of vision—but there must have been so much missed. I probably didn’t hear the phone ring unless I was right by it and there were many mysterious sounds that came to me as thumps and bumps or distant, but unidentifiable noise.

Even though my maternal grandfather and my mother both had the nerve deafness type of hearing impairment, apparently no one noticed it in me. I made it all the way to first grade before my teacher suggested to my mother that I apparently did not hear well. That meant I had to always be on the front row, never in the back of the room at the big tables where the cool, tall kids sat. It meant my attention was very concentrated in front of me and apparently that was a successful enough technique to get me through elementary school with decent grades. It also meant I was oblivious to so much else.

It meant that I simply could not hear a whisper and the worst day would be when the teacher would play the game where a word is started on one side of the room and passed on in a whisper. The word that finally reached the last person was often a hilarious distortion and, amidst the laughter, I always felt so shamed that I was surely the one who distorted it.

My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Winterbottom, was especially fond of this game—probably as a way to keep us very quiet. My hearing was tested at age 6 at the reputable Bill Wilkerson Center in Nashville and the diagnosis came back – “no need for hearing devices; this child can hear when she pays attention.” By sixth grade though, my mother had acquired aids of her own and decided I, too, should have one. One for the left ear that heard a little less well than the right.

I wore a single instrument to address my conductive loss until I was 45 years old and was told that I would be best served with two. And yes, wow, what a difference that made in the way I was able to participate socially! What a difference in my work environment! And how had I ever compensated before?

Obviously my other senses, mainly my eyes, had taken up the slack all those years and provided me with a very visually oriented view of the world. It was sometimes a lonely world where my best comforts were books and art. As with any handicap where one simply has no concept of how life might be otherwise, it took me a few months to realize how hearing 90% versus 60% was a welcome enhancement.

Those two small in-ear aids lasted me eight years. When they began to wear out, I was in no position financially to buy new ones. I spent two years wearing just one which had been rebuilt, and then when it stopped working, I turned to two big old-fashioned behind-the-ear aids given by a friend whose 95 year old father had worn them. They piped the sound in well enough, but had terrific feedback at the least provocation and especially when I did my yoga poses.

Perhaps the biggest incentive to get new technology came from my wonderful yoga teacher, whose gentle voice was the single most difficult sound for me to hear. One day, a stranger appeared on the mat next to me, and at the end of class turned to me and said “I can see that you have trouble hearing and, by your speech, that you have gone too long without proper amplification. If you want to see someone who can really help you, go to my friend Tom.” Another hearing-impaired friend seconded that suggestion.

Growing up, I always just went to the same audiologist my mother used, had a hearing test, was quoted a price, had an ear mold made and received the aid a week or so later. I spent the last quarter of 2008 in and out of the office of HearLab in Birmingham with Tom Sholten who introduced me to the latest technology and sent me home with demo models to try. Over a six-week period we determined just what model best served my needs.

The sophistication and new digital technology now available has revolutionized the industry in unanticipated ways. Correcting hearing loss is not a quick-fix. I have learned that by not keeping my hearing aids current, my brain lost some of its ability to communicate with my eardrum. That when anyone gets hearing aids, it takes the brain about two months to fully re-connect with the sequence of sound waves traveling into the membranes and bones of the inner ear. I have learned that an excellent way to retrain the brain is to read aloud 10 minutes twice a day.

Who knew?

I am grateful many times each day to realize how much better-connected I am to life with my new hearing aids. And, ok, if you wonder, they are made by Phonak. And I am even more grateful that Tom Sholten generously donated to my mother a pair of hearing aids, as she, at 86, had also let her hearing atrophy and conversations between us mostly consisted of ‘huh’ and ‘what?’ Her brain is still making the adjustments I mention, but as she now lives in a nearby nursing home, it is a huge improvement that enhances her entire day in these new circumstances.

I gladly give my referral to Tom or Kristie at Hear Lab (205-978-5881) if you live in the Birmingham area and want to find out if you really are as hard-of-hearing as your family claims!

Update 2013: Hear Lab recently introduced me to a new smaller, lighter and less expensive option made by Sonic. I do think I hear even better than ever and acquired also a Bluetooth Soundgate device that streams audio from my phone or computer directly through the hearing aids. This device is a huge help for listening to audio recordings and music while on the computer, as the audio produced through my very nice ASUS monitor was, none the less, crappy!

Time for me to pay attention to other new technologies coming forth. As I understand it now, stem cells would be involved. My mother told me years ago, “By the time you are grown they will have surgery to correct (sensorineural) nerve deafness.”

Perhaps in my lifetime . . .

Moldy, oldie photo of Daddy Joe, my grandaddy angel, reading to me. His hearing aid is inside his shirt with a wire up to his ear.

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