Monthly Archives: September 2012

My cochlear implant, day one: initial activation

Some weeks before…

I am in the recovery room just becoming aware of my surroundings. I reach up and feel the huge turban-like bandage on my head. It has really happened. I have an implant. I have waited so long for this that it is hard to take in. But the turban is real. I actually have a cochlear implant.

The first four days after surgery were a breeze. I had very little discomfort and no dizziness. I was on my way. On the fifth day my balance went awry. I couldn’t walk more than a few feet without needing to hold on to something and I kept lurching into walls. My original plan was to be back in action a couple of weeks after surgery. This was clearly not going to happen. I have had balance issues before and some loss of balance is a normal outcome of cochlear implant surgery. I should have expected this. So I rejigged my timeline and let the healing take its own course, something that is hard on my limited supply of patience.

Four weeks after surgery

Today I receive the external processor that will translate the sounds in my environment into a code and send the message to the electrodes implanted in my head to alert my brain that I have heard something.

I am sitting in my audiologist’s office being hooked up to the computer. She will first test all the electrodes to see if they are working. A few seconds pass. The electrodes are connecting with the auditory nerve and they are firing on all cylinders. Yes!

Each electrode is then tested for loudness and pitch. I hear a sound in my implanted ear and tell the audiologist when the sound is too soft, too loud and just right. I hear fuzzy beeps – sort of like the buzzing of an angry wasp. We work through each electrode, moving from the lowest to the highest frequencies. Things are moving along quite smoothly. Sometimes I have trouble knowing if the sound is too loud or too soft but there will be lots of time over the next few months for fine tuning and I am hearing sounds for each electrode she tests.

We reach one of the highest frequencies and I wince. The sound is grating to my ear and almost hurts, even though it is not that loud. My audiologist says, “That’s a sound you likely have not heard in more than 60 years.” It takes a few minutes for this to sink in. The sound I am hearing is one that I have not heard since before I became deaf at the age of four. My brain is reaching way back into its past auditory memory and is struggling to make sense of this.

My sister and brother-in-law are here to share this experience with me. My sister, the elder by six years, remembers vividly when I first lost my hearing. This information from the audiologist really affects her. She tells the story of how shortly after I was fitted with a hearing aid at the age of five, I rode my tricycle up and down the driveway continually ringing the bell. It was a sound I had not heard in over a year and I was obviously relishing this new noise. Today’s experience is much more powerful.

A few minutes later, we try this high pitched electrode again. The sound is now comfortable. My brain has figured it out.

Now it’s time to find out what I can hear in the external environment. My external processor is turned on and I take off my hearing aid in my other ear to test out the real sounds that are coming into my implanted ear. At first I hear only loud static; then low pitched sounds with breaks in between like BUZZ, pause, BUZZ BUZZ pause; then sounds that I think might be words – all in the space of a minute or two. In the next few minutes those sounds become more recognizable. I’m looking at my audiologist, lip reading what she is saying. I hear one word I think and then another. Lip reading helps me to make more sense of the sounds and helps my brain to recognize the sounds as specific words. Soon I am hearing several words in a row. The actual words aren’t clear at all. It is like hearing someone talk with a mouth full of mashed potatoes. And it is almost as though I hear the middle of the word. The edges seem frayed somehow. But I am an expert lip reader and can make sense of a lot.

The sounds are weird – robotic and all at the exact same low pitch, so I have trouble knowing who is speaking. They don’t sound like Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck as others have experienced. It’s more like Darth Vader – very deep and monotone. Even my own voice sounds like this.

I start to hear other sounds – the click of the computer keys, a box being unzipped. They also sound exactly the same – similar to the buzzing sound I heard when the electrodes were being tested. I can only tell what is making the sound when I see my audiologist type something on the computer or unzip the carrying case for my new processor. My brain is working furiously to register all this input.

Before I leave my initial appointment, the audiologist and I try out some simple words like baseball and rainbow. I try it first by combining lip reading and hearing and then hearing alone. I am surprised that I am able to distinguish some of the words using only the implanted ear and without lip reading. This is beyond my expectations for this first day. I had hoped that I would hear a bit of sound with my implant, not that I would actually recognize words.

My homework over the next two weeks will be to add more two-syllable words spoken by different voices and to start absorbing environmental sounds around the house and in the neighbourhood.

It’s a good beginning.

NOTE: If you are interested in finding out more about cochlear implants, you can check out the website for Advanced Bionics, the company that manufactures my implant. Here’s the address: http://www.advancedbionics.com

Getting directions: one of the little challenges of being deaf

I was in a major department store looking for pillows that were on sale. Hoping to save a little time, I asked one of the salespeople if she could direct me to the bedding department. She turned and faced away from me to point me in the right direction as she proceeded to tell me how to get there. I couldn’t understand what she was saying because I couldn’t see her face. For all I know she could have been directing me to an elevator to go to another floor. I tapped her on the shoulder and told her I was deaf and needed to see her face in order to lip read her instructions. She said okay and proceeded to turn away again to point me in the right direction! Once again, I explained that I could not understand her when she turned away from me and asked if she could give me the directions while facing me. She couldn’t do it.

I thanked her and headed off in the direction she had pointed hoping to find someone else to help me locate the bedding department.

When we give directions, we often point and we also tend to face the direction in which we are pointing – an extra challenge for those of us who are deaf! I eventually did find my pillows.

Helen Keller on deafness and patience

Helen Keller, perhaps the most famous person in recent history who was both completely blind and totally deaf, was asked once which sense she would want back if she had a choice. Her response was “my hearing”. When asked why she would prefer to hear rather than see, she apparently said this:

“BLINDNESS TAXES OUR COMPASSION, OF WHICH WE HAVE MUCH. DEAFNESS TAXES OUR PATIENCE, OF WHICH WE HAVE LITTLE.”

As I recover from cochlear implant surgery I am asking for your patience. Watch for more posts coming soon!