On August 21, 2012, five years ago today, I arrived at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto shortly before 8:00 a.m. for my cochlear implant surgery. When I handed my documents to the intake clerk, she glanced at them, smiled and said, “This is a happy day for you isn’t it.” And it was. But I could not imagine then just how much my life would be transformed. It has been quite the trip.
One of the biggest changes for me was hearing sounds I either hadn’t heard before or not since I lost much of my hearing at the age of four. Four weeks after surgery, on the day my implant was activated (so the first time I could hear actual sounds with it), I noticed that the stairs going up to the second floor of my house creaked as I climbed them, as did the dining room chair when I sat down to dinner that first evening. Who knew!
I remember being in my office one day and hearing very fast rat-tat-tat sounds. I looked out the window and noticed that it was raining. This was a new sound for me. Other new sounds I heard early on were the beeps of a truck backing up and me crunching toast. Some sounds were music to my ears, others not so much. I could probably do without the yappy dog in the neighbourhood. But the thing of it is – I heard them. I imagine that I had heard these sounds earlier in my life, but they were missing for such a long time that they seemed brand new to me.
Sometimes there was almost too much sound, as a weekend trip to New York early in my cochlear implant life brought home to me. It needed getting used to. Now it all seems pretty normal.
Hearing loss can bring on loneliness. If you can’t hear what is going on, you feel isolated. And it is difficult sometimes to explain why you can’t always hear, even with hearing aids. When I was growing up, aside from my father and grandmother and a Red Cross instructor who gave me my swimming test when I was in grade ten, I knew no one else with a hearing loss.
Now, it is amazing how many people I meet who have a cochlear implant or know of someone who does. Even the son of my former hair stylist, who has two of them! I’m now part of a select and very special group.
The external processor for my implant is turquoise, about the size of a quarter and attached to my head above and to the back of my ear by a magnet. So it can often be seen.
I remember one day while on my way to exercise class passing a mother on the sidewalk with her two children. She stopped, walked back to me and started to tell me about her dad who had recently received an implant. She and the whole family were so delighted that he was hearing again. This was such a nice connection for me. I have many of these now. And the fact that I have a magnet inside my head that attracts the magnet in my external processor to keep it steady also makes for some very entertaining conversations.
One of the most significant changes for me involved music. I had lots of music in my life while growing up. I played the piano and violin and sang in the choir. But as I grew older and my hearing worsened, I found it increasingly difficult to hear music. One of my hoped-for goals with the implant was to be able to enjoy music again. This happened on a special evening at the symphony some twenty-two months after receiving my implant.
What I didn’t realize until that evening however, was that the range of musical notes I had heard growing up was limited. I have worn hearing aids since the age of five or so and I still wear a hearing aid in my left ear along with the implant and processor in my right. During the performance I removed my processor a few times to check what I heard with my hearing aid alone. The music was muted and rather fuzzy. With both my hearing aid and implant, I heard almost every note.
Over the past five years I have written on my blog about the trials and ultimate success hearing the full range of music and that was certainly a major achievement. But for me, the following two anecdotes illustrate the impact my cochlear implant has ultimately had on my life.
My eldest sister remembers calling me for dinner when I was around four or five years old. She was on the front porch; I was on the driveway facing away from her. She first called me from the front door but I didn’t respond. She kept calling my name and moving closer until she was just behind me before I finally heard her.
I was walking in my neighbourhood recently when I sneezed. I heard a voice saying “bless you”, turned around and saw a young man, baby in arms, smiling at me from his front porch several metres away. “Thank you” I said with a smile and walked on. Before my implant I would not have heard the sound of his voice at all, let alone know what he was saying. Now, instead of wondering why I was ignoring his ‘bless you’, the two of us connected. Such an everyday occurrence, but multiplied many times over it has made a world of difference to the quality of my life.
It will never be perfect. Nothing is. But I cannot imagine life now without this tiny device in my head sending all these wonderful sounds to my brain.
For the past four years, I have talked with many potential implant recipients in my role as a mentor for the cochlear implant program at Sunnybrook. Most have one question in common to ask me: “Was it worth it?” My response is always a resounding yes.
My cochlear implant has not just given me my hearing back. It has truly changed my life.