How’s my life going with a cochlear implant (CI)?

Well, for starters—although I can’t speak for other recipients—it’s a lot LOUDER.

All sounds are louder: the ones that I recognize as well as new ones that, without any visual clues, I need help in identifying. Luckily, there are trained people standing by for this job. For years, my family, friends and I have been playing a game familiar to any person affected by hearing loss—Whazzat?, short for What’s That Sound? 

And now, thanks to my new bimodal hearing (I wear a ReSound LiNX2 hearing aid on my left and a Cochlear Kanso Sound Processor on my right), we’re playing Whazzat a lot. All the time, actually. But my family and friends don’t mind telling me what I’m hearing, because they know if they don’t, I’ll keep pestering them—and possibly leave them for a nicer group of loved ones. Besides, playing Whazzat let’s them show off their good hearing; they also enjoy my reaction to the excruciating sound of people chewing potato chips.

But at only 32 days since activation, most familiar sounds bear little resemblance to how I hear them acoustically through my hearing aid. The voices of strangers sound curiously alike, as if they’re crying while they speak. What I hear do hear clearly, however, are those high frequency sibilant sounds. Think of the hiss of snakes and steam and the grocery checkout woman who asks “do you want bagss-SSS?”  I groan f I’ve forgotten my sound-less cloth bags in the car; paper bags are noisy enough, but the loud crackling of plastic bags has become my Most Annoying Sound ever. In Wired for Sound: A Journey into Hearing, my friend Bev Biderman writes about her surprise at their harshness—she had expected that they “rustled softly in peace.”

On the plus side, I can hear butter melting in a pan—yes, yellow makes a sound! I hear water running in a sink which lessens the chance of my flooding the kitchen again. And after years of theatre-going, I now understand the fuss about people opening candy wrappers during the show. I hereby apologize to anyone, ever, who has suffered because of my oblivious, thunderous opening of candy and chips at the movies.

I’m also hearing lots barmping. ‘Barmp’ is what Newfoundlanders do when they lean on their car horn. Say ‘barmp’ out loud, drawing out the “arrr”. What you just said—ba-aar-rmp—perfectly describes what I’m hearing through my CI.

Me (in my dad’s house):  Whazzat?

Louise, my sister: The fridge coming on.

Me:   Oh, good heavens, WHAZZAT?

Louise:   Dad listening to the obituaries on the radio. (Loudly. With organ music. But he’s 90 and losing friends fast; who’s going to ask him to turn it down?)

Me (in the car with the Hearing Husband):  Whazzat?

HH:     What’s what?

Me:     That ba-aar-rmp!

HH:     The car motor. And air brakes on big trucks. Also, drivers barmping their horns.

Me:     That’s a lot of barmping.

There are exciting moments when I identify a sound all by myself. On a walk with the Hearing Husband, I heard a chittering sound, like birdies over there in the bushes. He said no, look up, it’s Canada geese flying over. I said I could hear them barmping, this was something different. He listened—and there were little birdies in the bush. Score one for Gaelie!

Nature is wonderful but so is the technical marvel of complementary devices that work with my cochlear implant and hearing aid. My smartphone rings directly in in my ears through the help of my Cochlear Phone Clip; I must look odd, jumping up for seemingly no reason and running around to find my phone. (I can’t locate it by sound, can I? It’s ringing in my ears!)

I also have an up-close-and-personal relationship with the Cochlear Mini Microphone, which is paired with both my CI and hearing aid. I plug it into my laptop to watch streamed movies and TV series, leaving me free to do yoga stretches while I watch, if I wanted to, which I usually don’t. (Previously, using my hearing aid’s telecoil and neck loop, I would occasionally forget that I was attached to the computer and, getting up suddenly, I would just about self-decapitate.)

As part of my daily aural rehab with my CI, I watch shows that are well-articulated and well-captioned and the voices are now starting to sound richer and truer, although there’s still a pervasive hissy-ness and barmping quality. Sound effects are getting better with every “listen” but music remains a challenge; I get the real high frequency percussion, but the other instruments and voices are off key, with no resemblance to how my memory of how the songs should sound.  

In other breaking news—when someone covers their mouth and gives me numbers from 1 to 999, I’m doing very well, if I do say so myself, although ffff and thhhh sound the same, making some words difficult to identify. To think that a hearing person can tell the difference, without peeking, makes me feel almost anxious. I can’t imagine ever doing that. Can all hearing people differentiate between nnnn and nggg? 

My father always told me it’s good to have goals. (Actually, he said it’s good to want things—which meant he wasn’t going to buy me whatever it was I wanted.) But the more I practice listening and hearing with my new devices, the clearer my goals become. And I’ve got a lot of resources, both human and technical, to achieve them.

 

Next in the Changing Cochleas series:  Part 7, Service, Service, Service!

Thank you to Cochlear Americas and to HearingHealthMatters.org for their support in the development of the “Changing Cochleas” series.  As always, my choices and opinions are mine alone.

“Changing Cochleas” is a 7-part series about my hearing journey with a cochlear implant. CI organizations produce the technology and also play an important role in helping recipients successfully adjust to a new way of hearing. So, in writing about my CI experience, I also write about the brand I chose, Cochlear. I know many people who have happily and successfully chosen to be implanted with other brands of CI technologyWhat’s important is that we have all been given the opportunity for improved hearing—and took it.

 

As we human beings grow up, we get bigger, hopefully better, although never perfect. Nature likes to throw curve-balls, forcing us to adopt exercise or medicine or body adjustment changes to recover and improve our well-being.

Some of us actually transform into semi-technical creatures. In order to hear, I’m a battery-operated person with my hearing aid and electrically-powered with my cochlear implant. This electrode array in my cochlea has turned me into a computer; I have stuff operating inside my head! In this computer, the Cochlear technology is the hardware—and I’m the software; I control my own hearing success through a variety of communication strategies.

 

So—what do I need to understand?

  • How cochlear implants work and how my brain makes sense of the universe’s sound signals.
  • How to turn the sound processor on and off, keep it from falling off, get the batteries in and out. (Hint: it takes repeated attempts with fingernails, until you remember the magnetic battery-remover they gave you.)
  • What’s in that powerhouse of a sound processor—the listening programs, status information, how sound can be tweaked, etc.
  • The CI’s technical add-ons, the magic that connects us to the world of people and nature.
  • That we’re now in rehab! Aural rehabilitation is ongoing (for most of us), taking weeks, months, years, but at least we can do it from the comfort of our own homes at our own pace, rather than at a treatment center, with weekend passes.
  • That the big payoffs only come from—Practice, Practice, Practice. (This was a direct order from my surgeon.)

 

So—who and what helps us to learn all this?

Small, Wonderful Black Things

  • Our audiology and medical team
  • Reading the many manuals that explain the equipment, which includes many small black things that look alike and all must be charged. 
  • Watching online CI videos and reading other CI blogs
  • Online aural rehab programs and exercises
  • Other CI recipients and their family members
  • Support from the cochlear implant manufacturer

 

In Part 4 of Changing Cochleas, I talked about attending Cochlear America’s Celebration. Trust me, it wasn’t all socializing and palm trees. The conference is a learning event for CI and Baha recipients; it helps them develop expertise with the technology and to stretch their comfort levels and confidence in this new way of hearing. 

The Hearing Husband and I had several choices during the two days of workshops. Some talks, such as those focusing on private insurance and Medicare, didn’t apply to Canadian attendees. Other workshops addressed how to enjoy music better and how to use the CI in activities such as jogging, cycling and swimming. At hearing loss conferences prior to implantation, I tended to gravitate towards the non-technical communication strategy sessions, but here, at only 10 days post-activation, I was more interested in the technology and aural rehab basics than in personal relationship management or tips on swimming with my implant. There were also separate programs for children and teens, as well as a workshop for their parents.

This early in my cochlear implant infancy, we were both keen to know more about the technology: the implant, the Kanso Sound Processor, and the many devices that enhance it. At times, there were three such workshops running simultaneously. If I could have listened to the presentation in Room 1 via my telecoil, while watching the captioning in Room 2, I would have soaked up two workshops at the same time. But I’m not that good.

We came out of a two-part talk by Jace Wolfe (a Man-Who-Makes-Me-Believe-This-Is-Going-To-Work) with a better sense of how the cochlear implant actually works. You think you kind of know, but there’s always something to learn, such as how the CI can deliver better results by using amazing doo-dads to connect with just about every device you own, including the TV, computer, smartphone, tablet and the doorbell. (Or did I dream that last one?)

Technology is not my forte; I accept it as a modern miracle that other people do understand. The Hearing Husband was fascinated by the research on the relationship between technology and background noise. Word discrimination can drop significantly when in background noise, but new technology can reverse that to some degree—just one example of the modern miracles springing from the minds of visionary engineers and scientists—my favorite people. I may not understand ‘em but I love ‘em. 

The picture shows me cuddling up to “Graeme Clark,” the Australian ear surgeon who created the modern multi-channel cochlear implant. The resulting company has since performed more than 450,000 hearing implants (CI and Baha) worldwide. With my CI, of course, the number now stands at least at 450,001

I’m passionate about continuing to work at hearing better. Why would I go through a big process like implantation and then just sit back and do nothing? I will Practice-Learn-Practice, both on my own and at events like Celebration with other people, because good communication is as important to me as water, air and food. Also, wine.

 

Next in the Changing Cochleas series:  Part 6, Whazzat?

 

Thank you to Cochlear Americas and to HearingHealthMatters.org for their support in the development of the “Changing Cochleas” series.  As always, my choices and opinions are mine alone.