In the final instalment of her cochlear implant diary, Liz Efinger reflects on whether surgery has paid off.
Before leaving for my much-awaited trip – a bridge holiday to Paris and Copenhagen followed by a cruise via Iceland to New York – I went for another visit to my cochlear therapists for a final mapping and equipment check. I needed to organise what to take away with me. This list includes chargers, a spare battery, and a backup processor which I was able to hire in case I got into trouble with my own processor. I also had a final mapping session to make a few adjustments to my settings.
I had five settings to choose from. These were my base settings, plus a slight variation on this, the third program for use in noisy situations, and two music programs. At this point, I was beginning to feel more comfortable about everything. I had progressed, I was getting considerable help from my
implant and my hearing was in a better place. I was going to be out of the country on my own for six weeks with no support from my audiologists.
My next session was not for another three months, after which the usual routine would be annual checks. I found this daunting. However, I took off with mixed feelings, excited at the prospect of a wonderful holiday. As it turned out, some parts of the tour were wonderful but others were not so good. Highlights wer
e Paris and New York – which is such an exciting city. I was able to meet up with some dear old friends there. But the cruise was disappointing – crowded, noisy and frustrating. It was not a wonderful ship and needed refurbishment. The bridge games were enjoyable but sitting around the dinner table at night with my group was no pleasure and chatting was a problem. As before, as soon as a conversation became several conversations, I was lost.
My hearing on the trip was still a long way from what I was hoping for and there were many frustrations on the journey. The final mapping before my departure had only improved things marginally. This was a great disappointment as I couldn’t help thinking that many people get good results more quickly. My worry was that maybe I was not going to be one of those wonderful miracles. Fortunately, my next appointment was only a week later.
I was still getting lots of grumbly/growling noises over what I was hearing, disturbing my speech comprehension, and at this stage, I couldn’t hear anything that sounded like music. The mappings are so important, and as all cochlear implant recipients are different, adjustments are a bit subjective, relying on the ability of the recipient to describe in a clear way what and how they are hearing. Believe me, this is a really difficult thing to do. But some minor adjustments were made and I went off full of hope that this time it was going to be good. I was determined to work hard at the computer exercises and listen diligently to plenty of television and radio programs.
By now, I was six weeks from my six-month assessment. Those weeks did not bring much change, just more frustration, although my friends all commented that they noticed I was hearing better. This was hard for me to register, as the day-to-day changes were difficult for me to detect. To get to this point, so much intense concentration is required, and I think my brain is probably less flexible than a younger person’s. It continues to struggle to make words and sentences out of the jumbled sounds it hears.
The date for my six-monthly check-up with my surgeon Associate Professor Catherine Birman came along. It was at this time I suddenly found I was hearing some strange sounds in my implanted ear – like a continuous low, loud booming noise. Professor Birman thought the noises could be tinnitus. However, she considered it was unlikely to affect my hearing, which was a relief. Otherwise, all seemed to be as expected, although Professor Birman also commented that she had expected me to be hearing much better. This didn’t make me feel too happy!
Two days later, I went for my big six-monthly audiology assessment, which compared my current situation with my pre-operation readings. The reassuring conclusion was that I was just where they expected me to be.
Music at this stage was still not sounding anything like it should – still just growling, gurgling sounds. But with my hearing-aided right ear it was somehow recognisable. I continue to persevere trying to get better bilateral musical recognition. The good news was that the loud noises I had heard had stopped, so it seems I had no tinnitus.
Coming back to my choir activities, I was preparing for three performances of Handel’s Messiah at the Sydney Opera House, which for the first time was being accompanied by Auslan interpreters. I have been doing this event for 20 years, and so have been anxious to see if it’s any easier post-cochlear. We got to the final rehearsal and I suddenly found hearing the conductor’s instructions seemed easier. I also felt I could hear the individual instruments and the different voices around me better. This was sensational – and definitely a big ‘WOW’ moment! I have found that what I hear can be influenced by the environment, the shape, height and size of the room I’m in, and even the floor coverings. Our performances were extremely well received. But for me, it was not so wonderful, as I heard mainly strange noises in the implanted ear rather than the music, which really affected my participation. Christmas came and went. Having a conversation in this noisy setting felt as difficult as it had been before the implant and I found myself sitting like a dummy most of the time.
But, on a positive note, I know that progress is slow – but – there is progress which I believe will continue for some time. I am now nine months post surgery. Some days I notice definite improvement, but this still requires concentrated listening, and other days I’m bothered by the interference of the ‘grumbling’ noises. But I have no regrets.
I now have bilateral hearing which is fantastic and I don’t have to constantly ask people to repeat things. I avoid social contact less, participate in choir, hear others and myself. Background noise is still very unpleasant and sometimes intolerable. But I am able to function in my world without feeling ‘out of the conversation’. I am able to participate.
As I was told so often – everyone is different and my experiences may be different to anyone else’s. Some people get an immediate response of hearing proper words and others – like me – take much longer. All in all, I hope this little anecdote may help someone contemplating a cochlear implant. All I would say to them is, ‘Go for it! It’s definitely worth the hassles on the way!’
Originally published in HearingHQ magazine Apr 2016