Back in July, I underwent cochlear implant surgery. I had decided that, after 20 years of my hearing deteriorating and using hearing aids that brought as many problems as they solved, something needed to change. This is my experience of the process – the positives and the negatives, and what it’s like having to learn to hear again.
I lost what little sight I had at the age of nine. In the early 1990s I had my first inkling that all was not well with my hearing when I started suffering from tinnitus, and over the next 20 or so years it gradually deteriorated. By the end of 2015 I was finding it harder to hold a conversation with people and was getting to the point where I felt unsafe going out with my guide dog.
I was accepted on to the cochlear implant programme after a referral from my audiology department. The surgery took place at the John Radcliffe Hospital, and I was told it was likely that, despite every effort, I would lose the little hearing I had left. It was a frightening thought and a bit like taking a step into the dark; no matter how poor my natural hearing was, I was still worried about losing it completely.
The big switch on
After three weeks of near silence, the big ‘switch on’ arrived on 4 August. As it turned out, it was all a bit of an anti-climax. I could hear a lot but could understand very little. It’s hard to explain – there was a lot of noise, and I knew some of it was speech, as I recognised the patterns. Other than that, though, I couldn’t understand a word. The rest of it seemed to be a collection of unrelated pops, whistles, hisses and swishing sounds.
The switch on was followed by a session with a speech therapist, and I was given a list of sounds that I had to learn to recognise. The idea is to help you to ignore the noises you don’t need to hear.
Gradually I started to recognise the sound of the kettle, the microwave and other kitchen noises. It is quite a revelation having to re-learn the sounds you have always taken for granted. I was advised to keep a diary of what I heard and my wife helped me by going through sentences and making me repeat them. After about three weeks we were able to hold a normal conversation.
It was more difficult outside. In the streets and walking my dog in the park there were so many different sounds. Initially, the traffic was a continuous set of hisses, but gradually I was able to work out individual vehicles and the direction that the cars were travelling in. In the park the sound of the wind in the trees troubled me for a while. I couldn’t work out what it was.
I can now manage most one-to-one conversations. In small groups I can get by to an extent, but in larger groups the speed and proximity of people makes it difficult to hear. I can just about manage a telephone conversation on our landline, but radio and television are still out of the question. The speech is generally too fast and sound effects and music are distracting.
I now recognise nearly everything that happens in the house, and can ignore some of the sounds that don’t matter. Outdoors, I am really enjoying going for walks as there is so much to hear. One of the biggest pleasures is being able to hear birdsong. For years the only birds I heard were pigeons and crows, but now I am beginning to recognise a lot of the birds again, like blackbirds and sparrows. I have also started listening to audio books. That’s really pleased me.
Not everything is quite so good. I miss music terribly. Music is very complicated to listen to and having to re-learn to do this is going to take some time and effort. At the moment the elements of rhythm, melody and vocals don’t seem to fit together. I am told that it will come with time and practice, so I am hopeful that I will be able to appreciate it again.
More worrying is the fact that I have lost my spatial awareness. I used to be very good at knowing exactly where I was, and could even pick my way around large obstacles by sound. This isn’t the case since the surgery. When I’m in the street I can’t tell where I am in relation to the shop fronts, which is rather scary. I still don’t know if I’ll ever get any of this awareness back.
I am told that it takes at least a year to get used to cochlear implants. I have achieved a great deal in the past few months, but there is still a long way to go before I can get the most out of them.
With practice, I know that my ability to hear and understand conversations will improve. There is a wealth of material to help with this and friends, relatives and others will be a great help – even if they don’t know they are.
I am prepared to put the necessary work into it as there’s a lot I want to achieve, such as being able to listen to music. I also hope to be able to walk my guide dog again. At present, I can manage crossing minor roads but the lack of spatial awareness is a significant problem. I don’t know if I will ever get this back – but if I don’t I am going to have to learn to manage without it.
A lot of the cochlear implant users I have spoken to say it is the best thing they have ever done. I am not so sure – yet!