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February 7, 2003

A Cochlear Implant Success Story

From: Insight on the News, D.C. - 07 Feb 2003

Posted Feb. 7, 2003

By Susan Boswell
I had cochlear-implant surgery on Dec. 11 at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and never gave the meningitis scare a second thought. I chose to get the implant for my worst ear, in which I have not heard in 28 years. It was activated six weeks later on Jan. 22-23.

About half of the activation was taken up with filling out paperwork, having the warranty explained and going through a general orientation. I expected that the activation --setting the current levels on each electrode -- would be tedious and time-consuming. But instead this process went quickly because the software allows the audiologist to set the lower and upper thresholds for four electrodes at a time. After that, I could hear through the implant.

I really was hoping to hear some kind of recognizable sound at activation, not just perceive a vibration or sensation. The first sounds I heard were robotic beeps, like C3PO or R2D2 in the Star Wars movie. If this was all I could expect, I thought, it was good I had the implant in my worst ear.

Then I heard myself sigh. I didn't even know I did that.

I had been worried that I wouldn't be able to understand the audiologist, whose extremely limited sign-language vocabulary seemed to consist of a dozen signs that perhaps other patients had taught her through the years. But, with a lot of focus, I was able to lip-read in addition to what I was hearing. I must have asked the audiologist at least six times within an hour whether my hearing was going to get better, and each time she said it would.

As we drove to a restaurant afterward, my husband put on some music. I could pick out the percussion, and there were different metallic pitches. With some imagination, and likely in combination with my low-frequency residual hearing, I almost could distinguish the melody. The music was easier to listen to than speech.

At the restaurant, all of the background noise became a metallic whine. It was an extremely jarring, irritating, experience to have familiar
voices replaced by robotic, metallic beeps. After eating, we went shopping at a mall nearby, but all the noise and the different auditory sensations were overwhelming. I just wanted to go home and take the processor off for a while -- and I did.

Soon I found that I did better in quiet environments where I could see the sound being made and match observation with what I heard. Most sounds still had that robotic, metallic quality. I found that I had two robotic dogs, and kids who spoke in high-pitched robotic voices. I could perceive a few sounds as I normally would hear them -- primarily sharp, percussionlike sounds. Interestingly, I could hear the dial tone on the phone. I could hear softer sounds, such as the light-switch being turned on or off, and I now could hear myself walk, even in soft-soled shoes. Everyone will be relieved that I no longer feel the need to wear my platform shoes just to have the pleasure of hearing myself walk.

During the second-day activation, I got some slightly louder programs. The audiologist and my husband said my speech was better -- I suppose they had been too polite to tell me what the quality was like the day before. People's voices had progressed from beeps to a robotic quality with varying pitches. Background sound came across as a metallic ringing. I now could distinguish familiar words, like the names of family members, without lip-reading, and I was encouraged with my progress.

While during the first few days I could not understand speech without lip-reading, after a week-and-a-half my hearing is much better. I am much more encouraged about everything.

At one point I thought the ringing in my ear was tinnitus, and really was worried, as I never had that problem before the implant. Everything sounded so different that it was hard to discern what I was hearing and even whether it was external or internal. Finally I figured out that the ringing sound tended to occur with high-pitched noises, which can be fixed.

About two weeks after the implant was activated I noticed that I was hearing a lot of new sounds, such as keys jingling and computer-mouse clicks. I also can hear things farther away, such as people having a conversation in the distance. Sounds that barely were audible before, such as the photocopier, microwave or dishwasher, I now hear much better. People's voices are sounding much more human and have more pitches, though it doesn't sound like a hearing aid. And music is sounding much better.

I thought I would have a very difficult month at work, but this has not been nearly the formidable challenge I was anticipating. I can understand people easily if I am looking at them, so it seems to others much like before I had the implant. At home, I have to remind my husband to look at me when he's talking, because previously I could understand him without lip-reading if he was close to me.

Music is one of my favorite things in life, so I was very happy that I could hear it right away in some fashion. I can hear percussion very well, and use that to pick out the melody, so I listen to rock music. I can't hear lots of different pitches, so melodic music doesn't work as well for me. Vocals are very disappointing -- I listened to one of my favorite songs and, although I could recognize the words, having long since memorized them, it didn't even sound like a woman singing.

At first I couldn't hear on the telephone. But I tried it about 12 days after the implant was activated and actually heard my husband. It was amazing. I even could make out some of the words on the TV without the captions.

One day I put on my hearing aid to see what it sounded like compared with my implant. The hearing aid sounded muffled. I can hear so much more with my implant. I can't believe I have progressed so rapidly. Now I wonder what it will be like three months or even a year from now. For now, everything seems so new, and I am enjoying every minute of it.

Susan Boswell is married to Insight writer Timothy W. Maier. Read his article on concerns about cochlear implants, "No One Listening to Meningitis Concerns."

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