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November 20, 2002

I can hear grass grow

From: Prague Post, Czech Republic
Nov. 20, 2002

Whisper in my ear and it whistles back

By Alan Levy
The Prague Post

I've always been able to tell when the president of the Czech Republic -- or, for that matter, the president of the United States -- is about to arrive. Suddenly, robust young men materialize wearing "hearing aids." Startled at first, I soon realized that their earpieces are advanced mobile telecommunications technology, and they are bodyguards or Secret Service men.

Now I'm one of them. Since September, I've been wearing a pair of very discreet Widex Senso Diva in-the-canal hearing aids with directional microphones that follow a moving speaker's voice. Only three people claim to have noticed my flesh-colored earpieces; if others have, they haven't said so. But I'm not hiding them. It's important that I "come out" not as hearing-impaired, but hearing-enhanced.

My new toy has four channels: Microphone, the standard hearing aid; Telecoil, for filtering out all extraneous sound while telephoning; Microphone/Telecoil combo for noting surrounding sounds while hearing the phone better; and best of all, the Music channel, which picks up instrumental music and muffles all other sound. It's like my private Walkman -- live!

Whispering campaign

Back in my Viennese days (1971-90) between lives in Prague, my wife used to take us once every year or two to the ear doctor, a venerable Holocaust survivor named Hans Neumann. When he was ready to examine me and asked for symptoms, Valerie would tell him, "He doesn't hear me half the time."

"That happens," Dr. Neumann would say. "After a while, husbands stop listening." Then he would put earphones on my head and a response button in my hand and serenade me with tiny beeps that I had to acknowledge. At the end of the examination, Dr. Neumann always pronounced the same verdict: "Mr. Levy can hear grass grow."

After a decade back in Prague, I sometimes didn't hear the phone ringing in my office when visiting the researchers in the next room. Conference calls on speakerphones were audible to everybody else in the room, but I had to strain to hear. My wife and younger daughter -- a New York speech-language pathologist servicing nursing-home patients with hearing aids -- insisted I was hearing less and less.

I went into denial. Theirs was a whispering conspiracy against me. Why, I could hear grass grow!

But I flunked two hearing tests in 2002. The first was in Vienna, shortly before my 70th birthday, when I treated myself to a complete five-day physical checkup at the famous Rudolfinerhaus hospital. The doctors recommended hearing aids. When I sent my daughter the graphic diagram of my tests, Erika wrote back:

"Your audiogram doesn't look unusual for a septuagenarian. Your right ear has a mild hearing loss. Your left ear has a moderate hearing loss. The decrease in hearing is in the high frequencies, which means you hear people speak, but they sometimes sound to you as if maybe they're muttering. I think it would be a good idea to get a hearing aid for each ear -- that's generally thought to be the most effective. A behind-the-ear hearing aid is easier to manipulate than an in-the-ear one. These days they're made in a way that they're not too visible."

However, cousin Leslie Bartfeld, who is an audiologist in New York, recommended an in-the-ear model, though not the tiniest, most costly and cosmetic size, CIC (Completely In Canal). Her rationale: "Because it's totally inside the ear, it can't have directional microphones that focus on the voice of the person with whom you're speaking without too many distracting background noises." She recommended the canal-sized Widex Diva, which boasts built-in mikes, over the Oticon Adapto, even though the latter comes with a vent that would allow air into my ears, which is believed to give a comfortable feeling. But for the Adapto you must order a directional-mike switch which you can turn on or off as you wish. Widex Diva was preferable because its directional mike activates and deactivates according to the noise level of my environment.

Leslie added that "Widex and Oticon are both excellent Danish companies. ... In the States, a pair of Widex Divas costs $2,500 (75,000 Kc) with a 30- to 45-day trial period, during which they can be returned, no questions asked, for a 90 percent refund. Whatever you buy, it's essential that it has a directional microphone and that it is digital."

Another deciding factor for me was that Widex servis is in my neighborhood and Oticon isn't.

Stigma anxiety

Still, I hesitated all spring. Even though I had no real fears, I worried about wearing a hearing aid to my workplace. I'd heard tales of people in the United States who actually lost their jobs when they donned what Czechs call sluchacka.

But the Widex doctor I later consulted (in this country, hearing aids must be prescribed and fitted by a MUDr.), Radim Kana, told me that this rarely happens here: "Yes, they're a novelty because they hardly existed under communism, so people notice and are curious, that's all. But it's no different from wearing glasses to help the eyes."

Finally, in August, I went to see an otorhinolaryngologist, Dr. Jan Klozar, deputy head of ORL (in America, ENT for ear-nose-throat) at Motol Hospital, for a second opinion. He tested me and said the results were "more or less the same as in Vienna." He dispatched me to Dr. Kana, who worked in his clinic from 1991 to 1998 before joining Widex.

After two fittings, my sluchacka were ready. They cost 41,930 Kc (a little more than half the stateside price), of which my Czech general health insurance paid 2,700 Kc -- what it claims to be the price of the most primitive Czech-made nondirectional, analog sluchacko. (Widex's range starts at 4,000 Kc and rises to 46,600 Kc for a completely-in-ear model.) My sluchacka are guaranteed for two years.

I wore them home, where I thought I was all alone with my new treasures. But suddenly I felt there was an intruder in the apartment. Then I realized I was hearing my own footsteps, my own breathing.

That could be annoying, but one filters such noises out after a day or two of use. The following Saturday, I visited Villa Bertramka for a concert by pianist Adam Skoumal (Prague Profile, Sept. 11-17) and switched my earpieces to the music channel for undisturbed listening to Mozart, Janacek and Benda. The vehement applause was just a muffled background rustle. At intermission, however, a Skoumal piano pupil apologized for bothering almost everybody with her mobile phone. Me, I hadn't heard it.

Both Dr. Kana and the instruction manual in English that cousin Leslie mailed me (also available via Web site warned that a hearing aid doesn't restore normal hearing but makes it easier to listen and understand what people are saying as well as enjoy many more sounds. And it involves plenty of technology stress as well as surprisingly short life spans for Zinc Air 312 mini-batteries and three-part earwax guards -- all of which require a couple of trips a month uphill to Widex servis.

If I hold my mobile phone just a little away from my ear, I don't get any feedback whistles. But when a friend tried to whisper a secret in my ear, she got whistled at. The same sound emerges if I rub my ear hard.

I still can't hear half of what my wife says to me, but I hear almost everybody else loud and clear. And I can hardly wait for springtime, when I'll hear grass grow again.

-- Krystof Hilsky and Eva Dreserova contributed to this report.

Alan Levy's e-mail address is


According to a 1998 survey, there are some 500,000 hearing-impaired persons in the Czech Republic. About 15,000 were born with hearing defects or experienced them in childhood. The number of hard-of-hearing people is on the rise and, as elsewhere in the world, the onset age grows younger thanks to loud music and the indiscriminate use of personal music headphones.

There are 7,300 users of sign language in the nation.

Source: Gong, the Czech monthly magazine for the hearing-impaired
Web site:

© 2002 The Prague Post