Are you thinking about cochlear implant surgery? Inspiring grandmother Liz Efinger relates her journey from ‘decision day’ to ‘switch on’ and life afterwards.

Liz Efinger and her nieces

Liz with her nieces Kathryn, left, and Julie.

My name is Liz and I am a lady of mature years. OK – I admit to being 81, but I am leading a very full and active life and hope to do so for many more years.

I live in North Sydney, NSW and my interests are friends, theatre, movies, travel and people. A very important part of my life revolves around music though so hearing is extremely important for me.

I retired from my professional life as a physiotherapist when I was about 50 and have been busy ever since. My hearing was very good when I was younger. I never had any problems until my early 60s. It was then that I realised, when lying in bed listening to the radio, that the hearing on my left side was diminished compared to that in my right ear.

I ignored this, thinking subconsciously (and rather stupidly) it would go away until I went on a group overseas trip on a music tour.

It became apparent that I was having trouble hearing what the tour leader was saying and that, in a crowd, it was hard for me to hear and distinguish conversation. Eventually, at the age of 63 I decided to have a hearing test. This resulted in me being prescribed a hearing aid on my left side.

I was told I had otosclerosis – a form of bone overgrowth in the middle ear that causes progressive hearing loss. My audiogram was in a relatively straight line – my lower sounds were slightly worse than the high sounds at that stage.

I had trouble getting my hearing aid adjusted and my audiologist and I became good friends during frequent visits. It was at this time that I also became involved in choral singing joining – at one stage – three different choirs, and also attending singing lessons. I loved this but also found it extremely frustrating as I had trouble hearing myself properly in the choir, as well as hearing the surrounding voices.

Starting a new venture at the same time as battling an increasing hearing loss was not a happy combination but I am a fairly stubborn person. In spite of the problems I was experiencing, I was determined not to give up my new-found passion.

My hearing continued to deteriorate slowly and by the time I was 70, I needed a hearing aid in my right ear as well. Life continued with increasing frustrations. I had ongoing problems with hearing aid adjustments which were never ‘just right’.

This led me to seek further advice on improving my quality of life. In particular, background noise was becoming a nightmare, and conversation in public places was very difficult. Also, understanding movies and speaking on the telephone was a problem. I was referred to an ear, nose and throat surgeon at one of our leading hospitals and he was very positive that surgery for the otosclerosis would help.

The operation suggested was a stapedectomy. This is a micro-surgical procedure to relieve deafness by replacing the stapes of the ear with a prosthetic device.

I was advised that the operation was very successful and that the chance of it not working was only one per cent. I thought these were pretty good odds, so after doing my research and much thinking, I decided to go ahead with it. ‘Why not?’, I thought, if improvement was almost guaranteed?

In January 2005, I went ahead with this surgery. Post-operatively I had a bad time for weeks with my balance being badly affected. As time wore on, I was shattered to find that my hearing had not improved at all. In fact, I felt it was worse. My high tones had deteriorated considerably and my low tones were slightly worse. So I was the ‘one per cent’ that did not have a good result and this was a big blow.

I eventually picked up the pieces, thinking there was nowhere else to go and I would just have to make the most of what I had and get on with my life. I enquired about a cochlear implant but was told that, as my other ear was adequate, I would not qualify. I am so grateful and delighted that the situation has changed now and I am eligible. At the time, it seemed I had no more options other than to struggle on with my inadequate hearing aids and get on with my life and this I have done for the past 10 years.

Liz Efinger with choir friends

Liz and choir friends Barbara, left, and Pauline.

My life has continued along similar lines. I am travelling when I can. I still belong to a choir, which is a very importantpart of my life in spite of the frustrations I experience every day and every week. I attend concerts when possible.

Background noise is a complete nightmare. Conversation, apart from in a quiet place with only one exchange going
at a time, has remained very problematic. Of course, my social life is affected, but I have wonderful friends who are very
understanding and put up with my problems and quirks. I found myself increasingly watching people’s mouths as I spoke to them and it seemed to help with comprehension although I can’t really lip-read.

In the meantime, I have, acquired four grandchildren, and there again, talking with them (and understanding them) has
become an increasing frustration – for them and me.

I finally decided that there must be something else I could do and that is when the possibility of having a cochlear
implant came into the equation.

I talked to a lot of people and went to a couple of audiologists who dealt with this procedure, and was told that I was
definitely a candidate to have a cochlear implant now.

I thought very seriously about this. However, there was a little hitch. At the same time I was diagnosed with hypertension (very high blood pressure) which I had never had before and it needed to be sorted out. I continued
to investigate the cochlear option, and was fortunate in being able to contact a handful of people who had had the
procedure and everyone was very encouraging.

By then the hearing in my left ear was almost non-existent so I thought, ‘What have I got to lose?’ My better, right ear
had gradually deteriorated also over the years, but with a hearing aid it was still giving me enough hearing to get by – so I
had that in reserve.

My next step was to see the surgeon who explained the whole procedure to me. And so I decided to go ahead with it!
Having made the decision, I was very excited and a date was set for my surgery. My immediate reaction was, ‘How exciting was this?’ and I went into countdown mode. I was given the choice of three different cochlear implant brands
– all similar but with some variations.

My task was to decide which one would be the best for me. This was not an easy decision to have to make. How does
one decide such an important matter? I read whatever I could and made my decision subjectively.

The Advanced Bionics version (AB) gave me a good feeling and I was fortunate to be introduced to a young man who
had had this type of implant last year. He has been wonderfully helpful and supportive.

I have also spoken with recipients of the other two brands I looked at. I liked the fact that the AB device was connected
with Phonak, a company which makes many hearing devices as well as hearing aids. Both my hearing aids were Phonak,
and I had found they were as good as I could get. Also they had a microphone directed to the ear which seemed to be
a good idea. Their associated appliances sounded wonderful to use with the cochlear implant for improved hearing
in crowded situations, for use with the telephone, and any Wi-Fi appliances and carrying on conversations.

Most importantly for me, they seemed to have concentrated on the music aspect with the design of the electrode combination. They appeared to be well up in technological developments. Overall, it felt like the right choice for me so I notified the audiologist who ordered the device. I started to get quite excited that maybe there was light at the end my frustrations.

This all sounds very simple…but I must admit it was far from it!

This was only the beginning. It has taken months from deciding to undertake this journey to where I am now. I would go as far as saying this is probably the most important decision I have made in my life since choosing my life partner.

To have this cochlear implant is potentially a totally life-changing event. For now, this is my ‘hearing story’ and I can’t wait for the next chapter!

Originally published in HearingHQ magazine Aug 2015