In November last year I wrote about my first experience with cochlear implants. I have now had my cochlear implants for six months and it’s official: I can hear better now than I could prior to implants.
At least that’s the result of the tests from a few weeks ago, where I had to retake the tests. I was tested with very low sounds to see exactly what I could hear and random sentences to see how much I understood. Finally I could make out individual words. The results showed a marked improvement over what I was hearing a year or so ago.
When I last wrote four months ago, I was hopeful that things were going to get better. While they have, there have been no eureka moments, it’s more a case of suddenly realising that I am doing something I haven’t done before.
Talking with friends
I can now happily take part in conversations with people who are close to me, for example sitting around a table in a pub or restaurant. I was out recently with friends and when it was my turn to get the beer in, I went to the bar and it was only when I returned that I realised I had been chatting with the barperson. Not a big thing, but my recent trips to the bar had consisted of me saying what I wanted and hoping that I got it without misunderstanding anything the barperson said to me.
When my wife and I are out in the car, we can talk and I have even been known to comment on something on the car radio. Until recently conversations in the car were impossible.
I am now regularly listening to the television news. The amount I can understand has gradually increased. I very occasionally get lost if there is too much background noise on an interview, or if the interviewee speaks too quickly, but I can understand the news reader virtually all of the time. My favourite quiz shows are gradually getting easier to listen to, but I still have problems with speech when it is too fast or when applause or music interfere. I am also listening to my audio books at normal speed, which means that I am getting through as many books as I did a year or so ago.
Some music is now listenable to me. I still find it easier to listen to simple music, single instrument and voices or small groups, but I have difficulty appreciating a lot of complicated music and really miss the grandeur of an orchestra or band. There is just too much detail to get through the processors and implants.
Outdoors, I am now used to hearing a lot of bird song and can identify a lot of the sounds I hear. Direction of sound is still a bit difficult. I can usually identify where something is coming from but I can have problems working out what is going on with movement. Sometimes I have to concentrate to understand which way traffic is moving.
I use my guide dog Kasper on a few routes, but I have encountered some problems. For example, I can’t understand instructions when they are shouted from the other side of the road. On some occasions, the sheer level of noise from traffic completely disorientates me – I have to stop and wait for things to get quieter before I can carry on.
The benefits of technology
The wonderful thing about technology is that it is relatively easy to add bits on. I have found a couple of very valuable gadgets that can be added to the implants.
One is a device that enables the audio output from a television, hi-fi or MP3 player to be streamed directly to the implants. This is a bit like using headphones, in that it brings the sound closer and – to a certain extent – isolates it so that it is easier to hear.
The second device is a tiny microphone that can be worn by someone or can be placed in the middle of a table at a meeting and enables me to hear what is going on much better. It’s a bit like being able to move your ears to where the sounds you want to hear are being made.
Coping with tinnitus
Perhaps the most significant change is with tinnitus. Before the operation, I suffered from a lot of tinnitus. Most of it was mid to high frequency whistling that seemed to get louder with the volume of the sounds around me. At times this would make it very difficult to concentrate and at night I often had trouble sleeping.
For a period after the operation the tinnitus got worse. I began hearing things that were just not there. The most confusing manifestation was like being at a concert with a manic banjo player screaming the words at a mass choir. I could hear the tune but never quite make out the words – this would go on for hours.
Once my implant processors were turned on, the tinnitus started to improve. It became quieter and did not seem to trouble me for long periods. Now it has disappeared while the processors are working during the day. There is some quiet background noise when I turn the processors off at night, but it is not troubling and if it should ever get to be a problem, I only need to put the processors back on to get rid of it.
After six months, I have become completely used to using cochlear implants. I am generally able to communicate much better with the people around me and enjoy some radio, television and music. I would now hate to be without my implants.
What I do miss though is the full sound of things. This is difficult to explain. All the sounds that I hear are small sounds. Voices are almost whispers, vehicle engines are hisses; there are no big sounds. The amount of information that can be passed through the processors and implants and into my brain is nowhere near as much as can be processed by a natural ear and consequently the details are lost. They are wonderful devices and they certainly help, but I do miss the fullness of sound. I am told by those with more experience of implants that I am doing well for six months in and that things will continue to improve.
Stay tuned for future developments.