Ian Kinross is a Toronto-based communicator who has worked in the health and financial sectors. On his blog, kinrosscordless, he writes about community gardening and bike repair and, now, Ménière’s Disease, a condition that puts the inner ear through repeated wash cycles, triggering vertigo and progressive hearing distortion and loss. I asked Ian to write his story for HHTM’s Better Hearing Consumer; a longer version appears on his site. GH
by Ian Kinross
I was on a deadline for a news story for the Addiction Research Foundation (now part of CAMH, the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), when the words started falling off the screen of my little Macintosh computer. I was hustling to put the story together, but the words appeared to be jumping off the page like ducks to water.
Pretty soon I was in the hard spin of vertigo – the world whirling around me. My eyes could not control the messages my inner ears were sending to my brain. Hanging on to the wall, I stumbled out of the office, lurched along the sidewalk and caught the bus and subway home.
I was young and strong and could tough it out – the hours of spinning, nausea, vomiting, and finally, a peaceful sleep.
I was back at the office the next day and wrapped up the story. At home, in the early 1990s, my wife Nadine and I were raising two beautiful daughters, Alison and Colleen. We tried to appreciate all of the magical moments, the sights and sounds of family life, along with our busy careers.
Changing sound patterns
After the vertigo attacks, I noticed that the hearing in my right ear was becoming distorted. In fact, the sound pattern was changing day to day – from a normal but tinny sound, to a garbled effect, like the sound from a stereo speaker that had a big rip in its woofer.
As the episodes recurred, I sought help from my family doctor, who referred me to the ENT team at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. I was diagnosed with Ménière’s Disease, a condition affecting my right inner ear and consequently my balance and hearing. There was no cure, but symptoms like nausea could be treated with medication. Vertigo episodes in some cases could be prevented or mediated by a diuretic and other medications. The condition certainly was not life-threatening and I had otherwise good health to be thankful for. “You are a young man with bad hearing,” the ENT doc told me. I was given a diuretic to take during vertigo episodes and encouraged to consider a hearing aid for my right ear.
Fast forward to 2012. I had taken on an exciting career challenge at the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) as senior communicator on the bank’s largest enterprise project.
One Sunday morning, I woke up practically deaf in my “good ear” – the left ear I had relied on for functional hearing for most of my career. We had a family event that day and I faked my way through it. As is the case with Ménière’s, some hearing returned the next day. It was distorted, but I got by at work. After seeing my audiologist, I started wearing two hearing aids as the Ménière’s was now bilateral — affecting both ears.
I was no longer young, but I was still strong and could tough it out.
I found an ally in an unexpected place. Tech guru Guy Kawasaki was speaking at a communications conference I attended. He told the keynote audience that he was using a cane that day and wearing a large hearing aid to deal with his Ménière’s disease. It was the first time I had heard someone mention “my” condition in public. Guy used humor to create awareness about Ménière’s – for example, claiming that he was getting deaf and dizzy from listening to too many bad pitches for new high-tech businesses. I reached out to Guy by email and we had a great virtual conversation.
Another ally was Don Lynch, a retired high school teacher who started a support group for Ménière’s patients in Toronto. Don’s words that stuck with me are about making the choice to “stand up” to face the challenge of Ménière’s– or any life challenge for that matter.
A moving target
My audiologist told me that my hearing was a moving target. It could be tested conventionally, but the sound pattern changed daily in both ears. Each day, I was finding it harder to speak on the phone, participate in a small meeting, or have coffee conversation with colleagues. My hearing loss was in the 60-70 decibel range in each ear – human speech is about 60 DB – and my hearing aids were amplifying a distorted sound.
With family and friends, I was beginning to withdraw from events and avoid conversations. I was missing the intimacy and humor of being with the people I loved.
In 2015, I returned to CAMH to take on some communications projects in the hospital’s Public Affairs group. As my Ménière’s progressed, I became more assertive to disclose my condition to my team and colleagues. So that I could continue to function as a hospital reporter and photographer, the organization and my colleagues stepped up to help, such as joining me at important interviews with patients, to ensure that, as a team, we got the story right. In other cases, I took care of photography first and filled in the gaps on a story with follow-up interviews by email.
From surviving to thriving
Still, my hearing function – and some recurring vertigo episodes – were making it harder to get the job done. I often felt I was surviving rather than thriving at work. I was approved for a cochlear implant, and while I was on the 12-18 month waiting list, I realized that I wasn’t willing to tough it out this time. I needed a change. I took a personal sabbatical from working life to focus on some new challenges and adventures, like home improvements, and learning the ancient craft of dry stone wall building.
My wife, daughters, family and friends were incredibly supportive. I recognized the impact of my condition – and my response to it – had on them. At home the four of us always made a point of eating dinner together and sharing the day. When the kids were in their teens, I was often “out of it” at dinner conversations due to the hearing problem, and to my own lack of focus. I would sometimes retreat into my own zone and miss the buzz and beauty of family life.
A new hearing system
In October, 2017, Sunnybrook Hospital’s Dr. Vincent Lin successfully completed my 90-minute cochlear implant surgery on my right ear (I continue to wear the conventional aid in my left).
I’m already seeing the benefits. People with Ménière’s have already coped with variable hearing patterns and perhaps our brains can pick up the new pattern quicker. I noticed right away how the implant gave me the high-pitched components of speech, like the letter “S”, which made conversation easier. Hearing in noise is better in some environments than others and I am starting to experiment with a directional option for noise control on my implant processor. After giving up music a few years ago due to hearing distortion, I am slowly rediscovering it again. Personal allies continue to pop out of the woodwork.
It’s early days for me as I adjust to the new hearing system. There are steps forward and back. But as the song goes: “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life…”
I’m starting to feel good.
Great article. Did the cochlear implant create any positive change on your vertigo spells? I’ve lived with Meniere’s for 40 years now. Fortunately at this point my spells of vertigo are down to only a few times per year, but I dread the day when they may return with much greater frequency.
Sorry, I failed to include my name before posting the above comment.
– Keith Golem
Hi Keith, thanks for your comment. I have not experienced any vertigo since my surgery Oct. 10, 2017. I have heard from two other CI patients who have bilateral menieres that the cochlear implant reduced their vertigo symptoms. That said, this requires further study. Sunnybrook Hospital has completed CIs in about 50 patients with bilateral Meniere’s. It would be neat to study this group.
This a great story that highlights an invisible handicap. Meniere’s can be really debilitating. I am absolutely delighted that you are thriving! I would like to point out that speech is actually at 40-45 dB HL, the scale that is used on an audiogram form. So, a hearing loss of 60 dB HL would be essentially out of the range of normal conversation. Speech is 60-65 dB SPL, a decibel scale that is not the same as the one used on an audiogram form. I think it is important to point this out because people sometimes think a mild hearing loss is not “that bad” when they confuse the decibel scales. Even a mild hearing loss can have a tremendous impact on someone’s ability to function from a spoken language perspective.
Thanks Jo for your kind words and also the clarification on human speech decibels. Agree with you about the often invisible nature of hearing loss and hearing distortion, and its impact.
I, too, have suffered with Meniere’s for many years. I woke up totally deaf in the left ear in the eighties but my right ear had great hearing. In 2012, the Meniere’s intensified. I had severe dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and worst of all, a horrible roar inside my head that wouldn’t stop! But this time was different, it took a good bit of my hearing in my “good ear” with it . After struggling to hear for five years and feeling very isolated, I decided to have a cochlear implant in my totally deaf ear. Best decision ever! Not only has it improved my hearing, it stopped the roar! The surgery was worth it for that alone! My life has improved so much, I can even enjoy going to the movies again! My only regret is that I waited five years to have it done!
Really glad to hear that Judy. We have similar stories. The decision for which ear to operate on was not easy. My left ear had better hearing but more variability, distortion and tinnitus. We chose to implant my right ear which has been affected by Meniere’s for much longer. So far the results are really encouraging. Like you, I recently enjoyed watching a movie in a theatre, and found I was “getting” most of it. Thanks for sharing your story, best wishes to you.
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