When hearing aids are no longer strong enough, a cochlear implant (CI) can be life changing.
For some people, it’s an easy decision to be implanted. For others who may still have some residual hearing, it’s not a slam-dunk next step. What if I get a balance problem or tinnitus? What if it just doesn’t work for me? What if I lose my MUSIC?
But for most of us who close our eyes, cross our fingers and jump over that CI cliff, it’s a journey forward that can be frustrating but full of rewards. From the time of switch-on, we make the acquaintance of old sounds we had almost forgotten existed and new sounds that we had never ever heard.
For me, magic came with the tippety-tappety of rain on the car windshield. Wonder came with the endless supply of new house noises – the refrigerator door whining “close me!”, water running through the pipes long after the toilet finishes flushing, and let’s not forget the actual flush that scared the heck out of me the first time I heard it after switch-on. I still revel in the rich sibilance of speech and the clickety-clicks of my cats’ nails on the hardwood floor, alerting me they’re coming for food.
At first, speech resembles aliens from the other side of the moon – robotic and nasally. With my eyes closed, I couldn’t tell if it was my husband speaking or my sister – and trust me, their voices are very different. But bit by bit, with each hour of practice with my sound processor, my brain began to make sense of what it was hearing. My life had become a Dr. Seuss poem.
What is that sound? Is it a clock?
No, no. It is not a clock.
The sound I hear is a coffee pot.
What is that sound? Is that the cat?
No, no. It is not the cat.
The sound I heard was rain going splat.
And then the BIG one:
Is that a herd of sick cows moaning?
No, no. Sick cows aren’t moaning.
That is music. Any music. All music.
Music is the tough one. When I sing out loud (with no one within listening distance), in my good ear, the one with the hearing aid, I sound little off key maybe, but the tune is recognizable. But from the CI side, I hear something grossly off-key, a half-octave lower and unrecognizable as music. Same song, same voice, but I perceive something completely different through my sound processor. This has improved slowly, so that when I listen to music connected to a music device, I still hear the low wonky sounds, but I also hear the singer’s true voice, but farther away. As they say, it’s a journey.
Music – having heard it and being transformed by it, how can we live without it when it’s taken away? We grieve and then, if we have the opportunity, we work hard to understand it again.
One of the most moving ‘music-regained’ moments I’ve ever experienced was not mine. A few years ago, before receiving my own implant, I was in Corner Brook, Newfoundland with my friend Myrtle Barrett for a presentation to school children. It had been organized by Virginia Brake, a local volunteer who had been implanted a year before. It was Christmas time and as we waited for the kids to arrive, Myrtle and I asked Virginia how she was doing with her CI.
She said it was going well, but she was feeling blue because she couldn’t understand the Christmas music she had always loved. And no, she hadn’t tried listening to the music connected directly to a device – was that even possible? Try this, we said, and connected her to my cellphone and “Silent Night”. She almost jumped; her eyes went wide and she started to cry. “I thought I’d never hear this beauty again.” The hair rose on my arms and Myrtle was in tears. It was one of those indescribable moments when all of the worry, frustration and fear of hearing loss are replaced with joy.
Understanding music is still a lengthy process for most CI recipients. But through practice, listening to simple or familiar songs on music devices, keeping up with technology advancements and taking tips from our audiologists and other people with CIs – miracles can happen.
So, yes, Virginia, you will – probably, most likely, with fingers and toes crossed and gifts from the technology gods – hear music again.