Monday 19 February 2018

The Enormous Hearing Aid Dome

To understand my tale of unbridled joy achieved in the surgery of an ENT consultant, you should know that my hearing, or lack of it, is the bane of my life, and I suspect of the lives of many of those close to me, even though they're too nice to admit it. There's more about this in A Deaf Character.

It was January 2014 and a week after I'd been diagnosed with cancer, a week after that day on 27th December when I'd done a pretty comprehensive job of persuading myself I wasn't going to be told that news. No, I was going to be told that it was nothing more than a scare.

Yep, would you believe it? I heard it clear as a bell. Never for a moment did I think they'd said, 'You're a grade three dancer'. My second question – and every body's second question I suspect (after every body's first question: is it terminal?)  –  Do you know if it's spread? was met with one of the most difficult answers that those brilliant medical people have to give:

We Don't Know.

There was nothing to say that it had spread, but nobody could be sure at this stage. And then came the biggy: had I had any persistent pain anywhere else? We talked about my neck. Like every second person, it seems, I never learnt to sleep correctly as I have an ongoing, but pretty bearable, sore neck. But I'd had that forever, it couldn’t be related to cancer, surely?

He asked if it had been around for over a few months and I responded with a whoosh of relief that it been there for, oh, probably my entire adult life.

'But what about your earache?' Hubbie said.

You know, for the first time in three months, I hadn't noticed my earache. It took a cancer diagnosis to trump it, but for those glorious few moments, it had subsided.

Thankfully, very quickly, the consultant assured me as best he could that it would be extremely unusual for breast cancer to have travelled to my ear. 'However,' he said, as we hung in the air, waiting for the 'but', 'I really think we need to get to the bottom of this.' 

You see, I'd already had three separate lots of antibiotics as whenever anyone looked down my ear, they winced and said that there was a horrible infection in there. He didn’t want me fighting an infection when I was about to undergo an operation and then onto chemo. Thus I was referred to ENT.
I took solace in the breast cancer surgeon's optimism but the earache was unsolved and not reacting to antibiotics and it's hard when you're in bed at night, with only your tinnitus and the darkness, for your thoughts not to fly to secondary cancer in the brain.

The ENT specialist was lovely. I specifically remember him saying to me that he was going to do everything in his power to ensure I left his surgery with an answer because I had enough to worry about. I am a sucker for anybody taking responsibility away from me. I am the archetypal non-control freak. I like nothing better than somebody telling me I'm going to be alright. If they say that, I believe them.
He looked down my ear with a much more technical piece of apparatus than found at the GP surgery.

'Right,' he said. 'This might hurt.'

No problem. As far as I was concerned, nothing could hurt more than the current pain in my ears. Bring it on!

I can only describe the next few minutes as playing my own special role in the Enormous Turnip. The instrument inserted into my ear produced a sort of 'sucking' feeling. But as quickly as it started, this not entirely unpleasant sensation stopped.

'I'm changing to a smaller instrument,' he said. 'Are you aware you have very narrow ear canals?' I laughed. If I had a pound for every time anyone in the medical profession has told me about the diminutive nature of my ear canals, well, I wouldn't be an impoverished writer any more.

By the time we'd moved to the third reduced sized implement, the consultant had his foot wedged on my chair as the small but oh, so powerful instrument pulled and sucked at the inside of my very narrow ear canal. My head swayed. This was no longer pleasant. I thought I was going to be sick but every time he asked if I needed a break, I told him to carry on. There was clearly something in my ear and we needed to get it out. I started counting to ten and got to 73.

Just like the Enormous Turnip, it sprang out with a pop which literally – yep, literally - sent the consultant reeling backwards. 'Phew!' he said, in a delightfully understated fashion, 'That was a stubborn one.' He held up the offending item, a mixture of pride and mirth covering his perspiring face.

'Do you recognise this?' he asked, bearing the tip of my hearing aid, the 'dome' in the trade, the removable bit which covers the receptor and goes directly into the ear. I say, 'removable', but must clarify that it is only to be removed for cleaning once outside of the ear canal. 'It happens more often than you think,' he said, in a kind attempt to placate my embarrassed shame – I told you he was lovely – 'You don't remember it coming away in your ear, then?'

The thing is, I do remember the moment he was referring to. I remember sitting in front of my mirror looking at the dome-less hearing aid, convinced I'd already replaced the tip. I asked the hubbie to have a look down my ear using the torch on his iPhone (Love is…) But when he couldn't see anything, I put it down to the advancement of my years, replaced it with another from the box, and never gave it another thought.

Instantly, the hearing pain was gone. I had to do everything in my power not to jump up and hug and squeeze the audiologist with every ounce of my being, for removing the pain, but also the fear that my stage two and hopefully curable grade three, caught early, breast cancer could actually be the treatable, but currently not curable stage four.

The hubbie and I shared a bottle of champagne that night, and it will always make me smile that only seven days after diagnosis, waiting for my operation, waiting for chemo, we were celebrating with champagne. Such is the strange world of Cancerville. I also remember running out into the waiting room and throwing myself on my husband in the way I'd stopped myself doing to the fortunate consultant, as I told him as well as I could through hysterical laughter, that he'd never guess what it was but it wasn’t a brain tumour.

Thankfully, he has pretty goddamn perfect hearing so he knew what I meant. 

If you're interested in hearing loss, you may like to read: Run That By Me Again and The Bottom of the Swimming Pool. 

A Deaf Character

A man 'in his prime', as my mum would say, a retired, silver-haired lecturer, is not peering down the top of a woman two generations his junior for reasons of impropriety. This gentleman has a hearing problem. His head is bent in order to fix his ear as close to his interlocutor's mouth as is acceptable in public, to give him the best chance of working out what on earth she is saying. Such is the first scene in the amusing novel, Deaf Sentence by David Lodge which had me chortling, sighing and laughing out loud all the way through.

I'm somewhat surprised I enjoyed it so much because, try as I might, I'm afraid there is very little about hearing loss that I find amusing. It can be peaceful. I do appreciate taking out my hearing aids in a crowded coffee shop for a spot of indulgent, uninterrupted writing. And it's with great pride that I admit I'm the Miss Marple in our house who tends to work out complicated plots and this surely comes from having to focus so completely on the subtitles of the film in question. I do also feel lucky to live in a world where there is so much technology to help us. Without my incredibly techie hearing aids, I would barely be able to function in hearing society and certainly wouldn't be able to do the work I do. 

But generally, I find my ever worsening hearing increasingly sad and isolating and I can't pretend I laugh about the situation very often.

Witty people, for example. I love funny people. I love comedy clubs, stand-up, romcoms, even my father-in-law's ever rolling conveyor belt of punditry. But these days, I can't always tell that funny people are being funny and that's a shame because I think laughter makes the world brighter. It's just not the same when your brother-in-law, second only in volume of wit to said father-in-law, with a Dad Joke thrown in, oh, every two sentences, says: Ahh! Surely your appointment's not at the hairdresser at two thirty but at the dentist? - and as the rest of his audience either groans or rolls around like little Smash men, you're still wrestling with the potential humour in your appointment not being at the bear presser but at the atheist's.

Lodge's main character, Desmond, talks humorously about the blind/ deaf comparison and it resonated with me so loudly (hah! Chance would be a fine thing). It's the truism of counting our blessings that our disability is deafness as opposed to blindness which, surely, has to be more difficult to handle, but recognising that blindness invokes pity, awe and wonder, whereas deafness arouses only an array of reactions along the continuum between mild irritation and full-on screwed up, pained face disdain. It's true, I've never known anybody grab the chin of someone who's blind and say, Just look for goodness sake! Whereas the look of anguish and the shouted irritation in the converser's raised tones – even though we understand the frustration, believe me, we do – sounds like all the world as though you're doing it on purpose. Trust me, nobody would choose not to be able to keep up with the conversation, give the impression of being stupid, not be able to join in because they can't hear the instructions, not be able to get the joke quickly enough, wear themselves out with the sheer energy it takes to focus on every single sound that does make it through their 'cloth ears' to their dulled brain as it tries to piece them together all in a rush, for fun. There is very little fun in social interaction when you can't hear and to be honest, there is very little more depressing than to be shouted at when you can't catch what someone else is saying. It makes me just want to slink away, hide and then slip away home.

But it's good to remember that I'm surrounded by very patient people and that any situation can be amusing if you look for the funny side. Lodge's book reminded me of that and although I'm a little late to the party (it was first published in 2008) I thoroughly recommend it to readers both with, and without, five fully functioning senses.

The novel also plunged me back into the ENT consultant's chair where I'd been referred as an attempt to get to the bottom of my excruciating ear pain which had gone on for months – three months, to be precise, not that I was counting. I've written about that in The Enormous Hearing Aid Dome.

By the way, I was recommended Deaf Sentence by an unassuming, fiercely intelligent, older-than-my-father-and-totally-on-the-ball retired judge and fellow student in my weekly lipreading class. He also told me that the great thing about being deaf is that we will never get Alzheimer's, because our brains are in a continuous state of brain gym, hoola-hooping their way through the jumble of words we have to piece together all day, every day.

There are silver linings in everything, you just have to know where to look 😊