As the Ears Go By: Part 1

Jim Sharrick

April 14, 2014

One Man’s Search for Better Reception

The first in a 3-part series on one man’s experience in getting a cochlear implant.

My name is Jim Sharrick, and I am very hard of hearing. A year ago, I came to the conclusion that I would get a cochlear implant. It was not a sudden decision, and not my first step in dealing with my hearing loss. Mine is not a unique story, but one that I hope will be of interest to those facing, or the family of those facing similar decisions.  Like any journey in life, it helps to know where it began. So I will start with the story of my journey to this point. Then I will share my experiences leading up to, and hopefully, following a successful installation.

The condition that causes my problem is called otosclerosis, along with a dose of cochlear sclerosis. I’ve been told it’s hereditary, and the technical explanation is very boring. Essentially, the bones in my middle ear don’t vibrate as they should to activate the cochlea. Still with me? The curious and/or OCD amongst you can Google it. Anyway, both ears are affected, the left one much more so than the right. Both are affected so much, that apart from holding up my glasses, the left ear is useless.

I should point out that my hearing loss occurred after I fully acquired language skills, and that it was a sorta’, kinda’ gradual loss. This is a hugely important distinction, and why I don’t describe myself as “deaf” despite being non-functional socially without the hearing aid in my “good” ear. Being “deaf” typically means a person was born without hearing, or lost hearing at an early age, which makes language acquisition unbelievably difficult to this outside observer. I remember reading as a child, the word “horizon” as “hoar-ih-zon”, despite hearing it spoken as “hoar-eye-zen”. How anyone without hearing learns to read is beyond my understanding. I know it happens, all the time, but the effort must be daunting. My diction is standard, so you won’t hear what I call the “deaf accent” in my speech.

Since you are joining my story in the middle, maybe it would be best to do as if you were viewing a popular series such as “Downton Abbey”. You’ll understand better if I quickly just review the first thirty-five seasons. There I was, a towering 5’7”, 125 lbs, Ghandi-esque in physique, (only without all the muscle), 21-year-old. I was at a buddy’s house, and watching a magical new television service called HBO, provided by something called “cable”. We were watching a movie, and I apparently had the remote.

Some buddy this guy turns out to be, since he started crabbing about the volume level I set. After a few other public misunderstandings, including one really good one that involved my future wife, I had my hearing checked. Sure enough, the local ENT diagnosed the condition dead on, and put me on some nasty liquid fluoride supplement, with a calcium supplement as well to counter-act leaching from my bones. This didn’t last very long, as it tasted awful and ruined the end of every meal. I also didn’t think risking the integrity of my skeleton for what was then a relatively small problem was worth it. The same ENT sent me to a specialist in Denver, just a six-hour jaunt one-way, to see about corrective surgery. The doctor in Denver said I had too much hearing to gamble on the surgery, so the folks and I drove back the same day. All I really remember was that it was the furthest I had ever driven for a sandwich. It was a good sandwich, but not really worth the effort.

Anyway, after a few years passed, the condition worsened, so much that I would get angry if someone tried to talk to me while I was eating. The sound of my own chewing, (yes, my mouth was closed), was louder than the voice addressing me. I’m a really slow eater in the first place, and stopping to listen was starving me. So I was off to another specialist in Lincoln, (only a three-hour round trip this time) who recommended a surgery called a stapedectomy for my, I think, left ear. It involves removing the stapes in the middle ear, and replacing it with a metal prosthesis. After a few days, my hearing improved, and I lectured others like a reformed smoker, shushing anyone who was too loud. That’s the good news; the bad news was that it only lasted for about four weeks. The graft didn’t hold, probably due to a malformation of the bone to which the prosthesis was attached.

For the first time, a hearing aid was recommended, and I got one. Over the next decade, I had the right ear done, same result, got another hearing aid; left ear again; right ear again; and was told not to have any more surgeries. Oh, and was further informed, by the way, you also have deterioration in your cochlea. After that time, I upgraded from the full shell in-the-ear units to a smaller in-the-canal unit for my left ear. Ironically, it was my “good” ear at the time, and the one I used for the phone.

The final surgical attempt was in 2002, left ear for the third time, with again, the same results. I could participate in conversation in a machine shop without any hearing aids. Awesome, you bet! But that damned incus, (another ear bone, trust me), didn’t hold up its end, and that prosthesis dropped as well. Adding injury to insult, about a year later I started to notice that higher frequencies switched totally to the right ear. So much for the left side being the phone ear.

So I got even bigger hearing aids, behind-the-ear units, which worked pretty well for a while. The best part of the bigger units is that you can get about two and a half to three weeks of battery life, since they have room for much bigger batteries. I still noticed some fading, but really had nothing more to try. I already watched TV about a footstool away from the screen to keep the volume as low as possible, sat in booths in restaurants rather than tables to increase sound dampening, and religiously protected my hearing while mowing, vacuuming, (yeah, I do my share), and snow-blowing. I was down to tactics, not remedies, to keep up with the rest of the planet.

Fate and stupidity would intervene to set my path a couple of years ago. I have to remove my hearing aids to get my hair cut. The gal that cuts my hair knows about my hearing loss, and is perfectly comfortable conversing for the two of us, so this is a nice arrangement. It was winter then, so I shoved my hearing aids in each of my coat pockets. After the session was done, I got into the car, and while the car door was open, pulled out my gloves. The next day, I found the perfectly flat hearing aid for my left ear, right where I had driven over it. I felt fortunate to not be wearing it at the time of the incident.

So I got new units, a bigger, (how is that possible?), more powerful version for the steadily declining left ear, and a smaller unit for the right ear. Normally, I’d get the same size, but the bigger unit didn’t have the ultra-cool receiver for my new TV transmitter that plugs into the headphone jack. Did you know there is dialogue during chase scenes and very loud musical backgrounds? Anyway, by this time all I was getting from the left side was what is called residual sound, noise, but no discernible speech. However, it had to be used in order to stimulate the left auditory nerve, the one that goes from the cochlea to the brain. The brain is very big on modifying what you don’t use, so despite being a pain to decipher speech with the accompanying white noise, I knew I had to wear the darn thing. The end game was becoming obvious, which brings us to this time last year, when I made the decision to apply for a cochlear implant.

Read More:

As the Ears Go By: Plugged In But Not Clued In (Part 2)

As the Ears Go By: A Mild Reception (Part 3)

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