Friday, May 25, 2007

Hearing--and other--losses

I've found the process of adjusting to my hearing aid, and having an ear that doesn't 'work' right to be a major adjustment. I wrote about the experience in my Bay Windows column:

Life in the slow lane
by Judah Leblang |
In March of 2006, at the end of a mild but dreary winter, I lost most of the hearing in my left ear. “Lost” is a strange word — not quite what I’m looking for — as if I’d just misplaced my ability to hear, like my ski gloves or blue cashmere coat.

I didn’t think much about it at the time. It was another gray late-winter morning, and I rolled out of bed, groggily, and answered the phone. I had to shift the receiver to my right ear to hear the caller; my left felt plugged up, as if I’d been in a plane, as if my ear wouldn’t or couldn’t pop. Days went by, and then weeks. I waited for things to return to normal. When they didn’t, I finally emailed my doctor. He suggested ear-drops and nose spray, assuming that my sinuses were merely congested.

In the mean time, I had more pressing issues. I went to the dermatologist to check a lump in my low back. While that turned out to be nothing, the doctor removed a small mole on my chest, sending it out for a biopsy. A week later, I discovered I had melanoma, and I forgot all about my hearing problem. Fortunately, the mole was caught very early, and after a quick excision, I was declared cancer-free.

In late summer, I finally went to an ear specialist. I’d been waiting all those months for my hearing to return to normal. In the mean time, I found it difficult to understand conversations in a crowded restaurant or bar; I was always a step late, trying to fill in the missing pieces. Before I saw the “ENT” (ear, nose and throat) doctor, I was given a hearing test. Sitting in a soundproof glass booth, I raised my hand whenever I could hear one in a series of beeping tones. There were long periods of silence, periods in which I strained to discern those faint beeps, knowing that despite my best efforts, I couldn’t catch them.

Ironically, I’d earned my undergraduate degree, 25-plus years before, in education of the deaf. After graduation, I taught deaf children for eight years, and later, in the mid- to late-1990s, worked as a sign language interpreter. I’d seen a thousand hearing aids, but had never paid them much attention; the aids belonged to some of my students and my hard of hearing friends, not to someone like me.

Now, after a quick glance at my audiogram, I knew that something was seriously wrong. The lines, which indicated my degree of loss, sloped downward and straight across the lower quadrant of the graph, deep in “severe” territory. I waited impatiently for the doctor to come in and tell me how he could fix my problem. But the doctor, it turned out, had nothing to offer me.

“Hmm,” he said. “This is unusual. You’ve got a severe loss in one ear, while your other ear is almost normal.”
“Do you know what caused it? Is there anything you can do?” I asked, my stomach tightening.

The doctor, loose and unhurried, didn’t seem particularly concerned. Nothing seemed to disturb his mellow mood, and his air of disinterest.

“Nope, and not really. I’d just say come back in about a year, and we’ll fit you with a hearing aid.”

I walked out of his office feeling dizzy, light-headed. Something I’d taken for granted, my ability to hear, was now fundamentally changed. I felt older, flawed, a bit like Rosey, the robot-maid on the 1960s show, The Jetsons, who was always in danger of being replaced by a newer, sleeker model.

I went to second doctor who was a bit kinder, more sympathetic. He sent me to another audiologist, who fit me with one hearing aid, then another, and now a third. From time to time, I sit in the white fluorescence of her office as she tweaks my aid. I respond to a series of beeps, and now, even in my left ear, I can hear normal conversations.

Still, it takes getting used to. During the day, I turn my “false ear” on and off, and remove it in the rain, wind or at the gym. As the audiologist, a sweet-voiced Southern blonde, informed me on my last office visit, “Not a day will go by when you don’t think about your hearing, for the rest of your life.”

I’m enrolled in a club I never wanted to join, the ranks of the hard of hearing. Suddenly I’m reminded of the periodic letters I receive from the AARP, inviting me to enjoy the wonderful “benefits” of being a member of their 50-plus club. And then I hold the hearing aid in my hand, its oblong shape like a miniature 3-D map of South America. This tool, about one-quarter of the length of my little finger, allows me to have most of what I once had, with a few adjustments.

And that’s what getting older is about, it seems to me, from this vantage point in middle age: adjusting to those necessary losses, and making peace with them.


Blogger Marcella said...

Judah, I'm enjoying your blog quite a bit. I keep coming by for updates! I'm sorry to hear about your health woes. Very sorry. I know it's a lot to deal with. The good news is that you seem to be internalizing it quite well. You are also getting some great creative mileage out of it, so at least there's that. That's your survival instinct coming out. (I'm sure you'd rather focus your creative energies elsewhere!) --Marcy

10:01 PM  

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