Category Archives: My Cochlear Implant Journey

It’s still not perfect, but…

The other day I was chatting with an acquaintance and he asked how I was getting along with my cochlear implant. I told him about my success with music and he said, ‘Well your hearing must be just about perfect now.” Well, not quite.

Throughout my life I have had people exclaim ‘Oh you hear so well.’ Or ‘Now that you have new hearing aids, you should be able to hear everything.’ Well, no unfortunately I don’t and I can’t. Sometimes I will try to explain the intricacies of hearing loss and hair cells dying off. When I tried to explain to this particular acquaintance how when we lose our hearing some sounds are lost forever and that makes understanding difficult even with a cochlear implant, I could just see his eyes glaze over.

The other week I chaired a small meeting of just five people, including me and had to ask others to repeat what they were saying several times. It was an off night.

When I received my cochlear implant more than four years ago, I expected that I would be able to not only hear, but also understand the voices of neighbours when we are outside weeding or, at this time of year, shoveling snow. I do hear the sounds now, but not always the words unless I move in closer.

I am writing this ‘tale of woe’ for a few reasons. First, to remind myself that I always need to keep my expectations in check. Secondly, to remember that when people say to me, ‘You are doing so well’, they mean it in the best possible way. They are encouraged and happy for me.

And finally, to let those of you at the beginning of your cochlear implant journey know that learning to hear with a cochlear implant is very much like learning to walk and it takes patience. The first steps are exhilarating – one only needs to look at a toddler’s face as she takes her first steps. And even the next several steps are exciting as well – walking without stumbling; running, racing, climbing etc.

During my first year with the implant, I went from hearing single words to full sentences to talking on the phone – clearly big steps! And to carry the steps metaphor a bit further, some of us go beyond running for pleasure and gain the speeds of an Olympic athletic. In my case, my Olympic moment came two and a half years ago when I heard all the notes of the symphony.

I need to count my blessings and remember where I started, rather than dwell on the ‘not perfect’. A good lesson!

Sharing Stories

I belong to a Facebook group for cochlear implant users like me. I don’t check it that often as many of the entries relate to issues with children and their implants or equipment that is different from mine. This week was different. A woman from Ontario mentioned that she was considering cochlear implant surgery and wanted to hear from others about their experiences. The page exploded with hundreds of stories, all overwhelmingly positive.

I think the main reason for the wealth of responses was that we all love to share stories, especially those that have meaning for us, individually and collectively.

This sharing of stories was something I experienced in a very special way just last week when I attended a production of “Come From Away”, a play about Gander, Newfoundland’s response to the travelers that appeared, literally, on its doorstep after 9/11. For those of you unfamiliar with this story, after the planes hit NYC, the US closed all air space over the continental United States. That left many flights hanging that were already on route. Calls went out to the Canadian government. Would we be willing to take some of these planes? We would. Over the next several hours, planes from all over the world landed on the west coast, in central Canada and, most especially on the east coast and in Newfoundland. Within a short period of time, Gander almost doubled its population. For those of you who don’t know Newfoundlanders, they are without doubt, the most hospitable people anywhere.

“Come From Away” is the story about the experiences of the citizens of Gander and the ‘plane people’ over a period of five days after 9/11. It is a wonderful rendition of this time and the play is filled with stories.

I had not been to a live play in many years but I really wanted to see this one. Normally, even with extra microphone and infrared systems, I still need to augment my hearing with lip reading, so I try to sit close to the speaker. Not this time. My new cochlear implant processor was fitted with a program that would be able to pick up the sounds generated through the infrared system at the theatre. My hearing aid was already tuned into this system so I was able to hear in both my ears.

I love the experience of live theatre. The dialogue is fast paced and it is always more challenging to get the words when they are being sung rather than spoken. But I heard so much more than I can recall during earlier visits. And this time, I could hear the actors’ emotions, something that had been missing before.

Imagine being able to hear and relate to emotions. And there were many – poignancy, sadness, joy; layers upon layers of emotions, which made for a very rich experience.

One more step on my implant journey and one more story to share with all of you.

Accents matter when you are deaf – especially when you can’t lip read

When I was in grade eight, our class watched and then discussed a film. I was asked a question about the film by my teacher, a recent arrival from Australia. In addition to a strong Aussie accent, he had a very bushy moustache, impeding my ability to read his lips. That plus the accent made it too difficult for me to understand the question so I asked him to repeat it. He did, but I still couldn’t understand what he said. Rather than admit I didn’t hear, something I couldn’t bring myself to do until well into my thirties in fact, I said I didn’t know the answer. My classmates burst out laughing and I knew they must be laughing at me. I later found out that the question was “What is the capital of Canada?” This was not, needless to say, the happiest of school memories.

My cochlear implant has improved my life in immeasurable ways and I do hear much better than I did back in grade eight. But I often still need to lip read to understand what is being said. And as with my experience with that Aussie teacher, I am also stymied by accents. The words not only sound different but they actually look different when formed by the lips.

Let me give you an example. Many years ago I attended a conference in San Diego put on by the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf. This was the perfect place for a deaf person to be because not only was everyone aware of our needs, the services available greatly enhanced our ability to hear and understand. One such service was the oral interpreter. This person takes what is being said by the speaker and mouths the words silently, sometimes changing the word or phrase to make it easier to lip read. I had my own oral interpreter and within minutes of watching her lips knew she was from Chicago, even though I did not actually hear the sound of her voice. I had cousins living in that area and knew how Chicagoans sounded. I could see her lips form the broad and long ‘ah’ sound like Chigaaaago and heard it in my mind’s eye so to speak. The ‘a’ looked different.

Hearing without being able to lip read can be challenging and a lot of the difficulty in my case is due to accents. A few weeks ago I listened to a series of short videos in preparation for a course I was taking. The videos consisted of a narrator as a voice-over and the main speaker looking into the camera. While I could understand the main speaker, I was totally lost when it came to the narrator as there was no captioning to help me. It was a woman’s voice, somewhat soft and with a bit of a drawl I think. But her accent was too hard for me to understand the words she spoke and of course there was no way I could read her lips.

Recently however, I had a totally different experience with accents, which is why I am writing this post. My sister and I watched a show called The Edwardian Farm on YouTube. The show is British and includes a narrator plus three main characters working a farm as it would have been in Edwardian days. While it was difficult for me to get what the three main characters were saying unless they faced the camera, I could understand the plummy BBC-type accent of the narrator perfectly. And just last week I was listening to a pod cast of a lecture given by a Cosmologist from the Perimeter Institute. He is originally from South Africa but studied in England and had a similar accent to the Edwardian Farm narrator. Again, I understood him perfectly.

I’m not exactly sure why I can understand one accent and not the other, although I suspect that a lot has to do with pitch and enunciation as well as the deliberate cadence of the speaker. But it is an eye-opener for me to know this. I think I shall have to move to London!

Glass half full or half empty?

Last week I received a new processor for my cochlear implant. The processor is the tiny computer that translates sounds in the environment to a code. The electrodes in my implant use this code to send a message to my brain that I have heard the sound. I must admit that I have a difficult time believing I have only had this marvelous invention for three years. It seems like a lifetime and I can hardly remember what life was like before my cochlear implant.

There are still challenges, especially when I can’t read a speaker’s lips, but they are far outweighed by the experiences that now go in my ‘life-half-full’ glass. My new processor includes a special receiver that connects both my hearing aid and implant with the personal FM that I wear in groups to boost the sound. So I am now hearing in stereo! Just two days after receiving this new processor, I attended a special music concert at church. I was amazed at how much better the music was this time, even more than that first time I experienced music with my implant at the Symphony, some eighteen months ago. I could hear very soft sounds distinctly. It’s really quite something.

The percussionist who provided some of these soft sounds sat up very tall in his seat and hid the speaker’s head from the pulpit. I tried to lean across him so that I could see the speaker’s lips, but was almost in my seat mate’s lap! So I missed hearing most of what the speaker said. There was a short video about Advent and an explanation in a child’s voice about the first candle of hope. I was able to get the gist of the message but unable to hear it all. It would have been nice to have had the video captioned so I could read what she said. My local newspaper, like many, has an extensive catalogue of videos on its webpage. But much to my dismay, none of the videos are captioned. I had a good talk with the customer rep and she thinks it’s an idea whose time has come. Hopefully I will be able to hear some of my favorite columnists sometime in the future. We’ll see.

And while my implant has improved my life in immeasurable ways, I still experience trepidation in any waiting room wondering if I will hear my name being called. This is a very common concern for anyone with a hearing loss. Even though we do hear our name above all other sounds, the anxiety of missing is always there, especially when there is more than one door where the person is calling from. I was in such a waiting room just last week. It took me a while to realize that those calling out the names were coming from an entrance behind me. Oh dear – did I miss? I quickly moved so I would be in the line of sight of this door and was able to see the person mouthing my name when I was eventually called. Whew.

So glass half empty or half full? No question – entirely full. A very good friend of mine told me the other day how much she admired how I had dealt with the many challenges of deafness over the years. To me, they aren’t really challenges, just steps along the way, even if they are sometimes one step forward and two steps back. I can now experience so much more. All in all, the challenges are pretty inconsequential when I can hear that beautiful music.

More on music and cochlear implants

Last June I wrote about my success hearing music with my implant. Since that time I have been trying to explain the difference between hearing ‘normal sounding’ musical sounds and hearing these sounds with a cochlear implant, to help others understand the enormity of this milestone.

I had a meeting with my implant rehab therapist earlier this week and she found this great illustration. (see link below) I want to share it with you – both those of you who are implant users and those who might know someone with an implant. I think this is an easy way to understand what we go through trying to hear music with a cochlear implant, especially when the implant’s sounds overpower the sounds from the non-implanted ear.

Some people with cochlear implants never reach the ‘normal’ stage; others get there fairly quickly. It took me almost two years. My brain had to reach back more than 60 years in its auditory memory for these very complex sounds.

I now hear the ‘normal’ sounding music with both my implant and my hearing-aided ear and I am greatly enjoying this newly rediscovered pleasure.

Here is the link. You need to scroll down a bit to find the illustration but I think it is worth it.
http://auditoryneuroscience.com/prosthetics/music

The Symphony

Those of you who are regular readers of my blog know about my struggles to hear music. While I could hear simple one-note tunes fairly early on, the more complex music of a symphony was beyond my reach. Until now.

Last week I attended a concert that featured among other pieces, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37. For those of you unfamiliar with this particular piece, the pianist’s fingers are literally flying over the keys for much of it. I heard almost every note.

There was still a ‘Darth Vaderish’ quality to the lowest registers and I could not pick up the pizzicato of the violins. But the last time I can remember hearing so much, so clearly, would have been at least 40 years ago. And I think the sound is actually clearer now.

It IS the implant that is making the difference here. A couple of times during the concert I took off my cochlear implant processor so I could get a sense of what I was hearing with just my hearing aid alone. It was very little and very soft. When I put the processor back on, the sound not only increased tenfold but it was MUSIC I was hearing in both ears, not noise. This was no fluke.

And how appropriate that my re-introduction to music was a piece by Beethoven.

A few days later, I was still on a high and still processing what happened that evening when I recalled others telling me that they had often been deeply moved by a piece of classical music.

I didn’t know what this meant until that night in June, almost two years after I received this amazing device.

My “cochlear implant expectation check list” is almost complete, so this will likely be the final entry of my cochlear implant journey, .

I still plan to offer thoughts on hearing loss issues from time to time and of course would enjoy hearing and publishing your stories on my blog so please do send them along to me. In the meantime, I am going to go listen to some music!

You can’t always get what you want in life

But to paraphrase that Rolling Stones oldie, you just might find out that you get what you need.

One of the biggest challenges for me is music. I have written in this blog on several occasions about my experiences hearing music with my implant. I could hear the true notes of simple tunes like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star with a week or so of practicing but a complex piece of music sung by a choir still sounds very Darth Vader-like.

So when my audiologist asked if I would like to participate in a research project for music therapy, I jumped at the chance. Here was the opportunity I was waiting for. I would devote 30 minutes every day for a month listening to and trying to identify specific musical sounds. It would be a great success and I would start to enjoy music once again.

Ah. It did not quite happen that way. Let me tell you a bit about the therapy itself. The patterns are atonal so you cannot easily memorize them. And as with all learning, they become more difficult as you go through the sections – nine in all, with several tasks in each one. For each task, you are presented with two patterns, each slightly different and played within a larger selection of music. The test is to identify when you hear one of the two patterns. Seemed easy enough. Not!

For one thing, the notes I heard with my implant did not always correspond with the placement of the notes on the screen. I know music. Before I lost most of my hearing, I played piano and violin and sang in the choir and glee club. I can read music and my brain still retains the musical memory so I know what it should sound like. The patterns in this therapy program appeared as notes on a staff (well, a seven line one) and I could hear in my mind what the sound should be. What I actually heard surprised me. In many cases instead of hearing notes that on the computer screen went up the scale, I heard them going down or vice versa. Very odd.

Eventually after much practice, I was able to hear some of the patterns as they should sound but there were still several that defeated me, so I just listened for what I actually heard rather than what I thought I should hear and was able to move through the sections reasonably quickly.

Then I hit section nine, the final section. Two weeks into my therapy month I hit section nine, task one. At the end of the month I was still on section nine, task one! I just could not get enough correct answers to move forward and the program doesn’t allow you to skip. I made sure I had a glass of wine at the ready each day after I finished the required half-hour. I would check the clock and stop at precisely 30 minutes. It was extremely frustrating, but I finally completed the requisite four weeks this past weekend and on Tuesday went back for my post test.

When I had my initial appointment a month ago, I was told that the researchers were finding that this therapy had a positive side effect.There may be a connection between music and speech. Many participants discovered that their ability to understand speech improved over the month. And my test results showed that as well. My ability to understand bits of speech in a noisy environment almost doubled from the first test a month ago.

A couple of weeks ago I was at a meeting of about 20 people. I was trying out a new personal F/M system that augments the sounds I get from my hearing-aided left ear and decided to sit at the back of the room for this meeting just to see how good the F/M was. I have NEVER sat at the back of the room for anything. I was always placed at the front in school and while I heard the teacher when she faced me, never got the benefit of being one of the ‘disruptive kids’ who had so much more fun in the back. Well, I heard just about everything at this meeting. My new F/M undoubtedly helped but I have a feeling that the dreaded section nine, task one played a key role as well.

I need to understand speech better. The more I understand, the less tired I am and the more I can participate in life. I can still hear some music with my hearing-aided ear even if I can’t get the full power and scope. So while it was a drag at the time, I really did get what I needed from this therapy.

And a PS. I saw a different researcher for my post test. She explained that cochlear implants are designed for speech, not music and music involves a totally different signal. There is rhythm, there are dynamics but most especially there is pitch. Speech generally covers a frequency range from 250 to 8,000 hertz. Music goes up to 16,000 hertz. Clearly there are some missing pieces and this helps to explain why I hear a range of notes that go down when the screen tells me they are going up. The brain is not getting the right signal and cannot accurately process what it hears. The research continues.