My hearing levels were first tested in 1993 when I was five years-old at the demand of my grandmother who was the only person who noticed that I couldn’t hear. The doctor told me he was going to test my hearing. I was nervous because I’d never taken a test before; I thought only grown-up kids had tests. He laughed and said it wasn’t going to be “like that,” whatever “that” meant.
I was led into a small sound booth with a large window looking out to a soundboard, computer screen, and a woman who pressed buttons while looking into the screen. She came into the booth and put two metal plugs into my ears that were connected to an electrical panel on the wall. The woman spoke into a microphone that filtered through the plugs in my years. She told me that she would play a series of beeping tones, first in my right ear and then in my left ear. She told me to raise my hand when I heard a beep. In the next part of the test she spoke several one and two-syllable words, first in my right ear and then in my left and it was my job to repeat them. Apparently, she could hear me through the enclosed booth.
Next, the woman put headphones behind my ears, instead of on them. I tried to move them over my ears, but she moved them back. I didn’t say anything, but I was certain she must be doing something wrong. How was I supposed to be able to hear the beeps and words if the sounds weren’t going to my ears? Nevertheless, when I heard a beep I raised my hand and when I heard a word I repeated it. Certainly, there must have been something wrong with this test because the woman clearly delivered more sounds to my left ear than my right ear.
The next thing I knew, I was being fitted for a hearing aid, not a hearing egg as I originally heard, but the difference in the words didn’t do anything to further my understanding of what was going on. What I later understood was that I had almost no ability to hear in my right ear and some mild hearing loss in my left, but not enough to worry about. This hearing aid was supposed to give me the ability to hear in my right ear.
It was okay. The artificial hearing instrument wasn’t so bad. I could kind of hear with the device, but there was something not quite so real about it. The sounds I heard were not very clear. I could not even hear when someone tried to whisper in my right ear or speak to me from my right side. If I covered my right ear in any way while wearing the hearing aid, I would hear something that sounded like microphone feedback, and whenever I walked into a store that had those anti-theft detectors by the doors, my hearing aid would make a buzzing sound. I quickly got into the practice of turning off my hearing aid before entering a store. Sometimes I forgot to turn it back on. I never noticed much of a difference.
I didn’t care too much that the hearing aid was not actually doing what it was supposed to do because this hearing loss was not supposed to be permanent. Every year when I got my hearing levels checked, the doctor told me that as soon as I was old enough, I could have a surgery to fix the bones in my inner ear so that I could hear. Knowing this, I walked through my adolescence unable to hear, just biding my time until the problem could be fixed.
When I was seventeen, the doctor told me that I was finally old enough for the surgery on my inner ear. We scheduled it to take place toward the end of my Winter Vacation. I was so excited that I couldn’t stand it! I was to report to the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters at the ungodly hour of 6:30am. Since I was to go under anesthesia, I was not permitted to eat anything after dinner the night before. I was prepped for surgery at 7:30am but I had to wait in the surgery waiting room until almost 2pm when the surgical staff came to get me for the actual surgery.
As I was wheeled through the surgical wing, I noticed the walls no longer had Wizard of Oz murals, but were painted a kind of dirty, sea foamy green. I mentioned to the nurse beside me that someone really ought to paint the walls in the same cartoony-mural way as the outside, so that it didn’t feel as if you were being wheeled down the Green Mile, or something. She said it was a good idea, but that comment did nothing to calm my nerves. She helped me onto the surgical table and put the anesthesia mask over my nose and mouth. I breathed in the awful-smelling anesthetic in long, deep breaths. The sooner I fell asleep, the sooner I would wake up and hear.
I woke up in the Recovery wing with my right ear in severe pain and I still could not hear. I looked at the doctor and, as if he could read my mind, he told me that he could not do the surgery because the bones in my inner ear that needed fixing were attached to one of my facial nerves. He said that if he made one wrong move, he would risk paralyzing half my face. I immediately burst into tears in mourning for the ability I would never have and all the sounds I would never hear. In his sad effort to cheer me up, the doctor said, “Don’t worry, kiddo, we might have the technology to try this again in ten years, you never know!” I just nodded. Apparently, this guy didn’t know how long ten years was.
It was time to adjust to my newly permanent disability. In classrooms and lecture halls I chose seats close to the front and off to the right to aim my left ear at the speaker while simultaneously cutting back the background noise. To compensate for my hearing loss, my head tilted so my left hear was raised to try to absorb all the sound it could, but also gave me an aching neck. I tried to avoid telephone conversations as much as possible because I could never be quite sure of what the person on the other line was telling me unless I could see the words in print or if I was reading their lips. I did all of this before my failed surgery, but it became a greater hardship when I realized I would be doing these things for the rest of my life.
I threw away the hearing aid. It never made much of a difference anyway. I resigned myself to this silent existence.
Six years later, nothing had changed. I still did not wear a hearing aid, I still could not hear, and the surgical advancements had not gone far enough to fix my hearing loss. I had just finished college and was living with another grandmother, Yia Yia, while trying to find gainful employment. During one of our trips to Costco Wholesale we found out that the store would be offering free hearing tests, and Yia Yia convinced me to make an appointment, just so I could have a record of my hearing levels in case I ever needed the records to log the hearing loss as a disability. I conceded and made the appointment for the following afternoon.
Lisa Pardue, Licensed Hearing Aid Dispenser and long-time Costco employee, administered my hearing test. Nothing about the test had changed except that, instead of raising my hand when I heard the beep, I pressed a little button that sent a signal to the computer screen. I still wore little metal plugs in my ears and headphones behind my ears to hear the beeps and small words at various volumes. I found out that the reason for putting the headphones behind the ears was to test the hearing ability of the bones inside the canal. My hearing levels were still the same.
Lisa told me that I was a great candidate for Resound wireless hearing aids. I was shocked that she wanted to give me hearing aids for both ears, considering no one ever gave much consideration for my mild hearing loss in my left ear. I told her I had already tried hearing aids and didn’t like them, that I was only interested in having the records. She insisted that these hearing aids were different. “They’re not your grandfather’s hearing aids,” she said. I agreed to try out the demos and walk around the store in them.
She was right. These were not my grandfather’s hearing aids. Almost instantly, my head tilted to the left to alleviate the burden from my left ear. Yia Yia and I walked around the store and I stayed on her left side and look straight ahead. I could hear her words in my right ear and I did not have to look at her mouth to know what she was saying. I heard my own voice for the first time and realized how loud I sounded to others. I even heard shoppers dragging their feet on the ground as they walked around me. I didn’t know before that the shuffling of feet on a polished concrete floor made a sound. I felt as if I were listening to Mozart or Beethoven or The Beatles. That sound was beautiful.
I should have never tried them on. I didn’t think we could afford them. I went home with my audiogram in a folder. I had done what I set out to do. I got my hearing tested and got a copy of the results for my files, but I wasn’t happy, I was distracted and upset. I had a small taste of what I had been missing out on all these years. Now that I knew what it was like to hear, my hearing loss felt a lot like trying to hear underwater. When I got home I tried to immerse myself in a novel but every so often I would stop reading, look around, and wonder if there was something going on that I wasn’t hearing.
The next week, Yia Yia told me that we could afford to buy the hearing aids. I broke down in tears and hugged her. I knew my life was going to change. I called Lisa at Costco and said that I would like to come in to be fitted for the Resound wireless hearing aids. A couple days later, I went in the store more excited than I had ever been in my entire life. Lisa put in the order and said that it would probably take two to three business days to get in. I didn’t care; I was getting hearing aids that actually worked! Lisa could tell how excited I was. She promised to call me as soon as they came in.
The hearing aids came in the very next afternoon. Lisa called me on my cell phone and said she had something for me and I knew she was talking about those fabulous hearing aids. I rushed to Costco as fast as the traffic laws would allow. I practically ran into the store, down to where the Hearing Center was located.
Lisa invited me into the testing booth so she could calibrate my levels with the hearing aids. She also gave me a wireless remote to control the volume of each device. The remote contained three settings. The P1 setting was for everyday use. The P2 setting was there for when I found myself in a loud area, like a crowded restaurant. When the P2 setting is in use, the back microphones are cut off and the front microphones are amplified, allowing me to hear the conversation in front of me without the background noise to distract me. The P3 setting was there to focus the microphones for telephone conversations.
These hearing aids have made such a big difference in my day to day living. I have learned that everything I thought I heard before sounds so different than I ever knew. Songs I’ve listened to for years sound so different. Before I had these hearing aids, I never knew that you could hear the sound of ocean waves in Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” or that the song, “Kiss on My List” by Hall and Oates had a drumbeat. I never knew that whispers were audible. I learned that there was a sound for a broom sweeping across a wooden floor, and a sound for an air conditioner clicking on. Every day I hear something new and think to myself, “There’s a sound for that?”
I speak much softer these days now that I can hear my own volume. Every time I go into a restaurant, I pull my wireless remote out of my purse and change my hearing setting from P1 to P2 so I can hear the conversation in front of me. The P2 setting was especially helpful on my little trip to the casino in Dover, Delaware. If I’m driving and I need to hear the person beside me, I can turn the volume down in my left ear and up in my right ear from the remote, which has become as natural to me as tilting my head to hear used to be. I never experience buzzing in my ears when I walk into a store, and if I cover my ears while wearing the hearing aids, I do not hear the annoying, high-pitched feedback like I did with the other hearing aids.
Having these new hearing aids have not only boosted my confidence, but have also revealed to me the cause of previous shyness. I could never fully understand why I was uncomfortable in large crowds or why every time I tried to learn how to play the flute or guitar, the skills never quite sank in. I feared large crowds and became very withdrawn while in them because I could never distinguish any one voice in the crowd and that inhibited my ability to be included in any conversation. I was never good at playing the flute or guitar because I could not hear the subtle differences in the notes, especially while tuning the instrument. Maybe I’ll try again.
I have always appreciated the things I could hear, and I now appreciate that sense far more. I take great care to not elevate the volume of the car radio beyond reasonable levels, even when my favorite songs come on. I avoid headphones when I can. I do not put myself in situations where the noise level is unmanageable, like air shows or car races. On the off-chance I find myself in such a situation, I am prepared with ear muffs. I am not interested in jeopardizing such a precious sense. Too many people take this sense for granted. Many of my peers will have hearing loss or tinnitus in their mid-life because they have been abusing their ears with loud stereos, concerts, air shows, and races. They will not know how wonderful it is to hear until they can no longer do so, but I know exactly how wonderful it is, and I will never settle for less again.