Monday, August 8, 2011

For the Record

One month ago today I lost most of the hearing in my good (left) ear. Rendering me functionally deaf.

Now seems like a pretty good time to take inventory and review my hearing history.

  • Forever: As long as I can remember I have had trouble with ear infections. About 10 years or so ago my doctor was able to explain why. He said that the shape of my skull causes my ears to sit relatively low on my head. This in turn causes the first part of my Eustachian tubes to be horizontal rather than downward tilting. This causes them not to drain as well. Apparently lots of kids start out that way, and they in fact have frequent ear infections. But as they grow the shape of their skull changes and they out-grow the problem. I didn't.

  • One day in 1994: I boarded an airplane while suffering from nasal and sinus congestion. I figured I was over my cold enough that I would be okay. Yeah, I know. Stupid.

    Well I wasn't, and, unbeknownst to me, my ears were congested too. When we got up to altitude my pain was epic, but the worst part of it was the vertigo that concentrated in my right ear. Now I had experienced vertigo before, but never this bad. And the fact that it was in one ear only made it much worse. Eventually the pressure did equalize in that ear, and the vertigo ended, all with a loud squishing noise.

  • Still in 1994, afterward, and for days after: it felt as if my right ear was stuffed with cotton. I eventually saw an ENT specialist about it, and their audiologist confirmed it. I had lost about 30% of the hearing in my right ear. And that was it. I knew what had happened. I knew why I had lost that part of my hearing. I dealt with it and moved on.

    My hearing pretty much stayed as it was for another decade or so. Most of the lost was at high pitches, which are the most directional of sounds, so it was often the case that if someone was speaking to me while I was looking down, I couldn't tell where the voice was coming from.

    But I could still appreciate stereo... if I was wearing headphones... and had the volume balance turned way to the right. I sometimes had trouble following conversations in noisy rooms, too, experiencing the aural confusion that often accompanies loss of stereo hearing.

    And, over time, I began to start hearing a constant high-pitched whine in my right ear, tinnitus, the audio equivalent of "phantom limb" syndrome. My brain's attempt to "fill in" the missing sound it was expecting to receive.

  • Spring of 2006: I pretty much stayed that way until, if I recall correctly, March of 2006. I learned to cope with the loss of natural stereo and the accompanying aural confusion. I learned to ignore the tinnitus until I really only noticed it if I happened to think about it.

    (UPDATE: On that note... Oh, great! Now whenever I re-read this blog entry, I'll start noticing my tinnitus. I feel like the sultan whose flying carpet only works if he does NOT think about elephants.)

    Then one morning I woke up and it seemed that the hearing in my right ear had grown much worse. Literally overnight. Hearing normal (for me) when head hit pillow. Hearing drastically worse when I sorta, kinda heard my alarm clock going off.

    Again the audiologist confirmed it. Hearing was almost nonexistent in my right ear now (less than 10%, some very select squeaky high pitches, and a little bit of bass clef were all that was left). But the shocking news to me was that my left ear now wasn't all that great either (85% remaining, most loss in the middle high range). Now really, my left ear hearing didn't sound any different to me. Maybe it was related to the same loss, and I couldn't tell the difference because the right ear changed so much more dramatically. Maybe it was lost gradually over those 12 years and I just didn't notice. I don't know if I'll ever know. At the time I was more interested in coping than in diagnosis... As if the same thing, whatever it was, could never happen to me again. Yeah, I know. Stupid.

    They were able to boost my hearing with hearing aids. One, to help my diminished left ear directly, AND one on my dead right ear that transmitted to the left ear. After a few weeks, I ditched the right ear hearing aid; the two sets of sound transmission did not always sync up perfectly, which just made things more confusing. So for the most part I just got by with the one hearing aid in my good left ear. Which I sometimes wore and sometimes didn't. Sometimes didn't became more frequent over the years until that day in...

  • November of 2009: I wore the hearing aid in a rainstorm. It got soaked. The electronics fried. I never got around to getting it fixed.

    Yeah, I know. Stupid.

  • Friday, July 8, 2011: Which brings us up almost to the present day. On that day, I lost most of the remaining hearing in my good left ear. It happened truly suddenly. Somewhere along 20 or 30 feet of quiet, empty hallway, Mother Nature hit the mute button on my good ear. I tried any number of things to test or restore my hearing:
    • Valsalva maneuver
    • Flicking inside my ear as if clearing out water
    • Shaking and hitting the side of my head. Yes, while I was driving. Yeah, I know. Stupid.

  • So, some observations:
    • My hearing wasn't totally gone; my left ear was still picking up some sound.
    • In particular, I noticed that the sound of a car door shutting, whether slammed or closed gently, was perfectly audible to me, although tonal characteristics were different now.
    • When I flicked in my ear, instead of a dull thuk sound you normally hear, I heard a sustained and resonant spu-u-u-ung, like an undamped kettle drum.
    • The frequency of that drum note seems to be some sort of resonance.
      • I can hear that one frequency extremely and even annoyingly well.
      • I can hit that one frequency on-demand by humming, I know when I have hit the resonant note perfectly because I can actually feel the buzz in my ear.
      • A day or two later, I was near some noisy heavy machinery. I actually heard a ringing at that resonant frequency before I could hear, or feel, the real source of the noise.
      • A week later, when the audiologist was piping amplified sound into my "good" ear, there were STRONG overtones on that one resonant frequency. It sounded like one of those b-movie or cartoon robot voices that incorporate a monotone metallic grating sound, where, with me, the monotone was at my resonant frequency.

  • Friday, July 8, 2011 (still): Meanwhile, back on the day it all happened, I eventually got home, and my wife, Kelly, accompanied me to the nearest 24-hour clinic. They gave me a week-long course of antibiotics on the off chance that it was just a bad clog, but I already suspected it was something much worse.

  • Monday, July 18, 2011: A week later I had my first session with an audiologist and an ENT, and received the news. The hearing loss was likely permanent (I was ready for that). It was so bad that they thought me to be a good candidate for a cochlear implant.

    But first! They wanted to try something that sometimes helped bring back some hearing in some patients. They put me on a course of steroids. The ENT, massaging her poor cramped writing hand (her only way of communicating with me in that setting), mouthed (well, probably said, but I only saw it) the word megadose. So I knew they weren't fooling around here. There were some side effects and some effects. It did seem that my hearing got a bit better. But I also had trouble with insomnia and indigestion.

  • Monday, July 25, 2011: After a week the audiologist tested my hearing again. Again the amplified voice sounded like a cartoon robot, heavy on the resonant frequency. But this time I actually did somewhat better on the tests. Better enough that the ENT no longer believed I might need an implant, which was oddly disappointing. I had kinda gotten used to the idea. I mentioned that, although I could tell a difference, that that difference seemed to come and go. Some days or parts of days I felt subjectively that I had better hearing than others.

    The doctor agreed that that was likely and set up a down-slope on the steroids. From 60mg daily the previous week, to 40mg daily the next week, to 20 the week after. I am in that 20mg period right now, and will see how things look, err, sound, at my next appointment later this week. With any luck they will be testing me for my industrial strength hearing aid.
Wish me luck. I'm gonna need it. I clearly can't rely on brains.


  1. Good Luck, Roger. Your first name seems significantly ironic right about now. Here's to hoping it's not irony, but a good omen.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Roger. You continue to be in my thoughts and prayers.

  3. Although I can't fully appreciate your situation, I've really enjoyed your reflections on it. Thanks for taking the time.

  4. I know a good, up-and-coming (in training) ASL interpreter who happens to be another Hokie. ;) I am sure this is hard for you, but being deaf is not always a bad thing. You will become more visually aware. God does have a plan in all of this. Praying for you and your family. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Good luck to you Roger... I am genuinely wishing you the very best.

    Very best regards, Michael McConnell

  6. Roger, thank you for your willingness to share this with us. Praying for peace and answers, and looking forward to reading updates.