Many who know me are aware that I have hearing issues. I have had a serious hearing problem since the mid 1990s. I got my first hearing aid in 1997 and am now on my fourth of fifth pair. Each pair seems to perform a little better. Let’s hear it for medical technology! I get by, but only with the help from these miraculous inventions. What would have been the situation 50 years ago?
But this week I was confronted with not being able to hear very much—even with my hearing aids on. Over the past several weeks it seemed I was starting to lose the ability to figure out what people were saying, and for the last three of four days, understanding more than a word or two had become a real challenge. It was not just the weak sound level. The greater challenge was to understand the words. I could hear the sounds, but they were muddled so that it was hard to pick up a word.
What was happening?
In desperation, I tried to get an appointment with my audiologist at Kaiser Permanente, my health care provider. Kaiser has a lot of strengths but getting audiology appointments is not one of them. On one occasion a couple of years ago, I was told I would have to wait six months to see an audiologist to fix what I was sure was a routine problem of cleaning the hearing aid. Kaiser basically said, your problem, not ours. The next day I informed them on their website that I was filing a claim of Medicare fraud and abuse with the federal government, which led to an appointment at 8:00 am the next day with a pissed off audiologist at another Kaiser location. After she fixed the hearing aid in about three minutes, she warned me, please, never, never do this again! (The threat of a Medicare fraud claim to the federal government always seems to get a response, often on the same day.)
This time the problem with my hearing was different. For the past week or so I had had increasing difficulties understanding what people were saying. Countless zoom meetings with the nonprofit boards I serve on were the biggest challenge. I thought the problems might be due to my computer or my cell phone. I tried to make an appointment with my audiologist, who is very competent and very nice doctor, but who informed me that she was fully booked for the indefinite future, and I should try for another audiologist at another Kaiser location. She gave me a special number to call. I called the number and talked to an operator, who said that from what I told her I probably did not need an audiologist but should return to my assigned Kaiser office and get the audiology tech person to check the hearing aids, which I did. The audiology tech person said my hearing aids were working perfectly and that what I probably needed was a hearing exam, which of course would require one of the “unavailable audiologists” and take a long time to schedule. I replied that I suspected that my hearing difficulty might be caused by wax in my ears. I had already made an appointment with the ENT doctor, whom I visited the next day. When she removed a huge amount of wax in both ears, I thanked her, commenting that I believed that should fix it. I breathed a sigh of relief and was elated to be able to join the world of hearing again.
Except it wasn’t. In fact, after the wax removal my hearing became worse, not better. At lunch with an old friend following the procedure, I had to struggle to understand what he was saying. Ditto for two zoom meetings and an in-person group meeting the next morning with a men’s group I belong to where I was the moderator. I tried to test several options—to see if I could hear any better on phone calls, to see if I could hear better listening to Pandora or the radio, and to see if another zoom meeting worked better. I turned on the TV and tried to listen to the news. I could not understand a word. Nothing worked. My hearing aids had been determined to be fine, in “perfect condition” according to the audiology tech person. I had had the wax removed from my ears. There was only one conclusion: The problem was due to my failing hearing. I was becoming deaf, not hard of hearing, but deaf, really deaf.
This was an existential moment. Do you have any idea of what it is like not to understand what people are saying, not to be able to listen to music, or not to be able to go concerts or plays or movies without subtitles?
It is already embarrassing enough to have to ask people to repeat things all the time, but not being able to hear almost anything? A dire situation.
I attended a high school reunion last year where classmates and spouses chatted loudly in a crowded area resulting in enough ambient noise that made it extremely difficult to hear what people were saying. I had to fake it that I understood the conversation and guess at what would be an appropriate response. After I received feedback from some puzzled classmates, I surmised that a typical conversation with me probably went something like this:
“Hey, Bobby, great to see you! How is your brother doing?
“Not good, Joe. He died a couple of weeks ago in an automobile accident.”
Pause to try to figure out what he said and then a guess, “Great news, Bobby, really glad to hear that.”
I got a call after the event from a good friend who told me he had to assure several people that I was not suffering from severe dementia. Hearing loss is not for sissies. And now to have hearing aids that are declared to be in perfect condition but which do not work? Panic time!
I told Embry about my problem when I returned home from my lunch and asked her to say a few words. I struggled to understand what she was saying. I was becoming a deaf duck! And it happened so quickly. No wax in my ears, hearing aids fine. What else could cause this? How could I as a hopeless extravert, who thrives on conversation and give and take—how could I survive without being able to hear? And if you can’t hear, you can’t talk and make sense as evidenced at my high school reunion.
Then in my moment of despair, I had what I would call a brilliant, last ditch idea. I had a couple of old hearing aids about 10 years old. Why not try them and see what would happen?
I cannot overstate how important this moment was for me. If my inability to hear persisted, then I could only conclude that at my advanced age of (almost) 81, my hearing was gone. It would be hopeless. What kind of life would I have from this point on? How could I cope?
With my heart beating fast and my palms sweating, I unhooked the earpiece connections from the current devices and plugged them into the old hearing aids. Then I put the old hearing aids into my ears and held my breath.
All of a sudden I heard music coming from the radio, which I had not even been aware was turned on. My goodness! They worked!
With the old hearing aids in place, hearing was back to what it used to be! Maybe even better. Eureka! So, despite the rosy diagnosis by the tech person, the hearing aids were the problem after all. It is unclear what is a miracle or what is luck or what is just the way life is. But I will tell you this: It made me realize how important hearing is and the challenge that people face who are not able to hear. You do not hear many severely hearing-impaired persons complaining, but it is still a huge handicap. We humans do what we have to do to play the hand we have been dealt as best as we can. A lot of people have no choice but to tough it out. Many of us have handicaps that we plow through, but still…
My next task is to get a new pair of hearing aids that actually work. How hard could this be? At Kaiser the answer is harder than it should be. Fortunately, there are good audiologists in Washington that provide options.
But most important, this experience underlines how fortunate we are who can hear (including those of us who require hearing aids) and how we take so much for granted.
Stressful moment but happy ending.