Thanks to hearing aids, I am able to get by. I have had a fairly serious hearing problem since the mid 1990s and got my first set of hearing aids in 1997 at age 55. My father had similar issues, so I suppose it could be genetic. Over the past several months my hearing had gotten worse and then a few weeks ago much worse. For most of covid-time, my healthcare provider was taking only emergency cases, and the audiology department was shut down. When a few weeks ago things began to open up as more people got vaccinated, I called for an appointment, only to learn that due to the covid backlog it would be three weeks before I could get the wax cleaned out of my ears by an ENT doctor, another two weeks before I could see an audiologist for a hearing test, and only then could I schedule yet a third appointment to get the hearing aids adjusted. That all totaled up to about six weeks.
Well, ok, I thought, my hearing is pretty bad, but I guess I can manage for a little longer with my failing hearing aids, so I booked the first two appointments.
Then my hearing aids went out completely.
The next day I attended a noon memorial service for a dear friend followed by a reception. I sort of got the gist of the service; but at the reception, it was hopeless. I spoke briefly to his widow, nodding when she talked, trying to read her lips, grabbed a sandwich and a lemonade and bolted. I had to get out of there. There was no way I could understand what anyone was saying.
So this is what being deaf feels like, I thought. I know that plenty of deaf people survive and in fact thrive and excel, but when not being able to hear a word someone is saying happens to you, it is a not a happy situation.
So what to do? I first emailed the healthcare provider, telling them about my situation and requesting an emergency appointment, only to be informed that this did not constitute an emergency and that I would have to wait patiently in line. No exceptions.
Wrong answer. I will not go into the details, but I immediately went to Plan B, which involved emailing a “Howell Outrage Manifesto” to the healthcare system authorities. I did not exactly threaten that if my hearing predicament was not considered an emergency, I would take action to bring the entire healthcare system to its knees, the executives thrown in jail, and the whole system humiliated when my op ed piece about it appeared in the Washington Post. But I hinted as much. Before the end of the day, I had the necessary emergency appointments lined up. The next morning at 8:00 AM the ENT doctor came in early to clean out my ears, then I was handed over to the audiologists, who gave me a hearing test and fixed the hearing aids. All done in about two hours. Mission accomplished.
Now not only can I hear again, but I can also hear better than I have for years. It turned out that the real culprit was wax buildup, one of the worst the ENT doctor said she had seen in years. It had been three years since I had had the wax cleaned out of my ears. That is supposed to happen every six months. I stand guilty as charged.
There is so much we take for granted—like hearing or seeing or simply being able to walk, and yet we often do not appreciate how important these things are until we lose them. Just think of all the “little things” that covid has forced us to give up like eating indoors at restaurants, in person work and school, hugging friends, and actually seeing people’s faces. These activities, which we assumed were just a normal part of life, when taken away became very big things.
My new appreciation of being able to hear again caused me to think back about what it was like having polio, which I came down with at age 10, and how grateful I had been when little by little over the next few years I could start to do the kinds of things other kids could do like go to school, toss a baseball, or just hang out. It often takes an experience like this to make you appreciate how fortunate you are when life returns to normal.
But what does my experience in persuading the healthcare folks to make an exception for me say about what happens to others who do not have an Outrage Act ready in their back pocket for use when needed or do not understand how to get the attention of people who can correct a stupid rule or dumb protocol? How many just get squelched? Would poor folks or immigrants or people of color or “really old people” or those with limited education be so lucky? Life is not fair nor has it ever been. So much depends on circumstance and the luck of the draw. This incident reminded me of how grateful I am (yet again) for the hand I have been dealt.