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