Wednesday, June 23, 2004

The hearing aid

It took until March to get all the wheres and whyfores of the hearing aid sorted out. Insurance covered some, not all. A member of my Board of Directors suggested I could borrow the money from the organization and pay it back, interest-free, over time. I nearly cried with relief. Here was the way to make it happen. She put the motion before the Board in camera at their next meeting.

They didn't vote to lend me the money.

They voted to buy me the hearing aid.

The Board of Directors moved and voted to cover the entire cost of the hearing aid, up to $2000, if necessary. It is no overdramatizing to say I was humbled by the gesture; I work for a non- profit organization where every penny is precious. They could have simply and legally made my getting the hearing aid a condition of keeping my job.

So I got quotes. I was shocked that of five faxes (of my prescription/audiogram) requesting quotes, I got two replies. How do these people stay in business? One of the two returned calls promptly and had the best price on the same model. He ended every conversation with "Thank you for calling Beltone!". I cringed every time he did. It made him sound like a caricature of a bad used-car salesman. I did not want to make the most important purchase of my life from a used-car salesman.

I went to see him for the fitting. The way they fit you for an ITC (in the canal) hearing aid is this: they push a tiny ball of cotton way, way into your ear, next to your eardrum, with a pair of long, thin tweezers. You do not move at all while you're doing this, not because he's told you not to, but because you've seen the long, thin, tweezers. You wonder how they get the little cotton ball out. What if they lost it in there? Do they get it out again with the long, thin tweezers? You shudder. This is worse than you expected. Then the hearing-aid guy mixes up silicone in a little cup and puts it into a big hypodermic-thing. Then he squeezes it into your ear.

This is one of the weirdest feelings most people will ever have the privilege of not experiencing. For one thing, nothing has ever touched those cells that line that inner canal, but air, ever. It even occurs to you that they are being touched for the first time in your life. That's weird. Secondly, the sensation of having your ear canal completely and utterly blocked is foreign and not comparable to any previous experience. It's not like earplugs at all. It's complete. You realize how... silent it is when this happens. No air, nothing. You wonder if this is what it feels like to be profoundly deaf in an ear.

You sit then for five minutes making faces. You open, close your mouth, stick your tongue out. You say the vowels, count to ten, with exaggerated motions. The hearing aid mould will have to take into account all your jaw and face's natural motions. No point having an aid that pops out when you yawn. So you make every face conceivable on the "Thank you for choosing Beltone" guy's orders. You're grateful that he leaves you alone in the office during this bit.

After five minutes, the silicone has solidified. The hearing aid guy comes in and works it out of your ear. That feels weird, too, but by now you're getting used to strange sensations in there. He shows you the small masterpiece you have co-created. It looks largely like chewed gum, but now you see that a) the cotton ball had a thread attached to it all along with which to remove it and b) it comes out stuck to the mould, anyway.

So you write the hearing aid guy a cheque for your deposit and he tells you when the aid will be in, and you shake hands.

"Thank you for choosing Beltone!" he says cheerfully.

About eight days later, he calls. I go to his office and together we admire the hearing aid. He fits it - o perfect fit! the process really does work - and teaches me how to use it.

They really are incredibly ingenious little things. A tiny little volume control which can be easily adjusted with the tip of a finger. A miniscule little microphone attached to a remarkable array of electronics. A battery the size of half a dried pea.

Hearing-aid guy cautions me: I am not going to hear again. I am going to learn to hear a new way. A different way. I will be interpreting sounds differently. It will take patience and time. I am going to have to learn to talk with the sound of my own voice ringing in my head (put your fingers in your ears and say something. Yes, it's like that.) I nod and try to absorb everything, which is fruitless, because much of what he is describing to me cannot be explained and I have not experienced it.

Finally, the lessons and the talk are over. "Thank you for choosing Beltone!" he cries, waving, as ever-patient, ever-present husband and I leave.

Now out in the world we're on our own, me and my new hearing aid. Over the next few days we have to get to know each other. The first thing I notice is that I can hear my own footfalls, loud, heavy, inside my head, with the aid in (I expect you can duplicate this by sticking your fingers in your ears and walking, too)... This is disconcerting and unpleasant.

The second thing I notice is, hearing aid guy was right: I am not 'regaining my hearing'. This is a completely different way of hearing. My brain is processing the sounds differently. Things sound clear - but they don't sound like amplified versions of the old sounds. They sound... different. There are other small things at first, too; a truck passing on my right (the aid-less ear) sounds like it is on my left, because that is the aided ear which is picking it up. I have to be more cautious walking in traffic, but am no doubt much safer than before I had the aid at all.

One evening, about a week after I get the aid, in a pub with my husband, as we chat, I hear a distinct, low "beep-beep" - like the tone you sometimes hear when you're on hold.

"What was that?" I ask.

"What was what?" he says.

"Did you just hear a beep?"

"No." He looks at me funny.

"Oh." I shrug. "I thought I heard a beep."

He continues his story and about 30 seconds later, there it is again. Beep-beep.

I look over my shoulder, warily, as if the beeping culprit might be back there. Trying to be nonchalant, I scan the pub for the source of the beeping.


I suddenly feel like an idiot. It is the aid itself, and it must be some kind of alarm telling me to change the battery, as I've not done so since it was fitted. And here's me, covertly scanning the rafters for listening devices.

Indeed, the booklet that came with the aid didn't mention this little feature, but from that night on, my small helper beeped impatiently into my ear whenever it was time to top up the power and get the sound crystal-clear again.

People - people other than my husband, who has been warned - assume that I am 'fixed' now. It takes patience to make them understand that the rules we have worked out - speaking to me directly, speaking clearly - must still be followed. The aid is not a panacea.

Yet the change is remarkable. I can have conversations again. I can watch tv in the company of others again (our elderly but still perfectly-functioning televisions predate closed-captioning). I can talk on the phone again. I can do my job properly again. I can have long talks with my husband again. I'm happier than I've been in months. I change my hairstyle and buy some new clothes. I rejoin a gym. I'm interacting with the world again and I hadn't even realized I'd stopped doing. I get better and better at living with the hearing aid. Friends who didn't know I had a hearing loss (yes, I hid it well) are surprised but everybody seems generally pleased.

Maybe this could have been the end of the story. This would be a good end. But it isn't.


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