The devastating destruction of Hurricane Harvey has caused massive people displacement in the southern US. In my home province of British Columbia, historic wildfires continue to rage, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes.

Most of us watch these real-life dramas on our TVs, perhaps while eating dinner and drinking our water-wine-soda-beers. We’re safe and comfortable – not soaking wet from the floods or dripping with sweat from the heat and smoke of nearby fires. We think, OMG! What a nightmare – they’re losing their homes, their family pictures, their wedding gifts, their grandma’s dining room table!

But my people, the ones with hearing loss, wonder about something else: “Did they have time to grab their hearing aids, their sound processors? What about extra batteries?? How are they going to keep their hearing aids and CIs dry? Can they hear emergency instructions? Can they understand what people are saying to them?”

I know what it’s like to be helpless and hard of hearing during a disaster. At age 20, the year before I got my first hearing aid, I was living in Darwin, Australia which, on Christmas Day, was leveled by a ferocious, howling Cyclone Tracy. As I said in my blog The Sounds of a Christmas Cyclone (December 18, 2012):

Merry Christmas, Darwin!

Over the next week, Australia and the world came to our rescue. The radio was our lifeline, and my friends made sure I understood what I could not hear from the incessant broadcasts.  And, in the dark of the long evenings without electricity and just a few precious candles, they took turns sitting and sleeping next to me so that I would feel safe and connected. 

 On the 29th of December, I sobbed as my friends piled into a van to go ‘down the track’ to Alice Springs and home to other parts of Australia.  I had chosen to be airlifted out of Darwin, one of 26,000 people evacuated over five days.   Throughout the night at the high school evacuation center, people’s names were called over a PA system, notifying them to board a bus for the airport. In the chaos, I could not hear and I waited, exhausted. Finally I approached a member of the armed forces guarding the school – “Please, I’m hard of hearing and I don’t know what’s going on. Help me.”  The next morning, I was on a plane to Adelaide and two weeks later, I arrived home to my frantic family in Canada.

Just as they did in Hurricane Katrina, the hearing loss community has jumped into action to help the hard of hearing victims of Hurricane Harvey. Those who have been evacuated to Dallas and other places have been supported with hearing assistance and technology. In one instance – a scenario that I’m sure is being played out in many areas – a couple lost everything in the flood and my fabulous, caring friend Esther Kelly, a Hearing Loss Resource Specialist at Deaf Action Center, Dallas TX, was able to help:

Esther Kelly (center) and Friends

These two wonderful people from Houston lost everything they own[ed] in the flood. He had lost his hearing aids and could not hear. I was able to connect with them thru the shelter in Dallas. Thanks to the generosity of ReSound Hearing aids and Family Audiology he was provided with wonderful new hearing aids today. They related a harrowing story of how they were rescued with kayaks and then drove to Dallas for a place to stay. (via Facebook, September 1) 

Even if you aren’t expecting floods, cyclones, fires or locusts to descend on your home anytime soon, it’s a good idea to always have backup listening technology readily available. I can honestly say that if I were awakened in the middle of the night for an emergency such as fire, the first thing I would reach for (also to help me understand what the Hearing Husband or, heaven forbid, the first responders were telling me) would be my dry aid containing my hearing aid and CI sound processor and, time permitting, my passport and laptop.

All of us here at HearingHealthMatters.org send thoughts of encouragement to those affected by the hurricanes and fires, and we  thank those who reach out to support disaster victims who also have hearing loss.

Are you embarrassed by your hearing loss?

I am – but not by the fact of it. I’m not ashamed of my hearing loss and I don’t try to hide it.

But it’s those embarrassing moments – when you mis-hear something, or didn’t hear in the first place – that get me. Those lovely little social faux pas – perhaps when you laughed at a friend’s back pain because of her weird little smile and you thought she was telling a joke.

I’m still haunted by a long-ago humiliating moment. During school, every single day of every year, I sat at the front of the class in order to understand the teacher. Except for just one day in high school. Just for once, I wanted to sit at the back with my friends. The teacher called on me to answer something, but I hadn’t heard what he said, probably because my friend was whispering at me. Deciding to be honest, I stood up and said, “Sorry, sir, I wasn’t listening.” The class went dead silent. The teacher said, “Well, thanks for telling me that, Gael, but I called on Dale, not you.” My face burned for the rest of the day. For the rest of my life, actually.

After six decades of hearing loss, you’d think I’d be cool with it – roll with the punches and all that. Squealing hearing aids were always good for a small blush and even now, when I “talk over” someone, it’s embarrassing. Talking-over is more than just two people starting to speak at the same time. It’s more like:

Someone Else: “My husband I have decided that…”

Me (jumping in): “So! What’s everyone doing for Christmas?”

Another Person: “Uh, Gael, So-and-So was talking…”

Me: “Oh, sorry.”  (Then I don’t talk again until someone returns to my question about Christmas, or until I’m sure there’s a significant gap in the conversation which, in my group of female friends, is usually never.)

Then there are the spectacular moments. One night we were running very late for my teenage son’s hockey game. The air was blue with family nagging. I stood at the bottom of the stairs, carrying on mostly one-sided shouting match upstairs to Joel because he needed to pack his damn hockey bag now! All of a sudden, he tapped me on the shoulder, from behind, in hysterics at me bellowing and gesturing up the stairs to an empty bedroom. He had been answering me – from the basement, where he had been packing his damn hockey bag.

I laughed too, but not too much. I hate being caught out like that.

Hearing loss causes painful moments, but it’s mostly embarrassing for us, not other people, especially those who know about our hearing loss. Strangers, however, might think we’re odd when we answer inappropriately.

Server: “Would you like more coffee?”

Me: “No thanks, but would you mind filling up my coffee?”

In that case, the server might pause for a moment before complying. But if you were to answer “yes, please” to the question ‘would you prefer chicken or steak”, it takes a bit more work to straighten things out. I’m no longer embarrassed by these minor mis-hears. It goes with the territory, an occupational hazard. Learning to laugh off these moments puts hearing loss into perspective and other people at ease.

Yes, hearing loss can cause red faces, painful blushes and the urge to crawl under a rock. But hey, it could be worse. You could stub your toe, hard, in the dark.