As a doctor, to be quite honest, I never really thought about how hearing loss would affect a person’s life, and certainly never thought of the impact of suddenly becoming severely deafened. I tended to think of hearing loss as a condition which rarely, but tragically either occurs in early childhood or more commonly affects the elderly.
My experience revealed to me that hearing loss can sometimes be sudden and profound.
As a middle-aged GP, in a comfortable suburban practice in Edinburgh, I had been used to being the health care provider and advocate for my patients. I was confident, positive, self-assured and a very social being.
All this was to change, when about five years ago I developed profound hearing loss in my left ear over the course of four hours, complicating a pre-existing moderate to severe loss in my right ear.
The immediate effect was of being unable to communicate effectively, I couldn’t use a telephone, and I could literally hardly hear myself speak or know how loud my spoken voice was. I was immediately and suddenly unable to work and was unsure if I would ever be able to continue in my chosen profession. I relied greatly on my supportive wife to relay information to me and to become in effect my ears.
I was seen as an emergency and after assessment, prescribed high dose oral steroids, being advised that there was a reasonable chance of some recovery from this sudden sensorineural hearing loss.
Although a hearing aid provided some sound in my right ear, the task of actively listening was difficult and exhausting. It is hard to describe the sheer fatigue associated with trying to concentrate on every word that a person is saying,particularly as having lost my hearing rapidly I was having to adapt to essentially lip reading.
I was however fortunate in being treated by a Consultant Ear, Nose and Throat surgeon who had knowledge and experience of treating adults with sensorineural deafness using cochlear implantation. It was he who spoke positively of these devices and the dramatic difference that they could make. I therefore asked to be referred onto our regional centre as soon as possible.
Thus began my rather surreal journey…
Whilst waiting and hoping for some spontaneous recovery as the weeks went by I began slowly but perceptibly to see changes in my behaviour.
The first and most obvious was social disengagement because of the difficulties communicating. I missed the verbal chit-chat, humour and spontaneous discussion which define us as social beings.
It became impossible to enjoy the previous pleasure of interacting in large groups with friends , struggling to pick up the gist of a discussion, falling silent afraid to intervene for fear of showing one’s possible ignorance and lack of understanding.
In the interim I obtained great support from family and friends and also the UK charity Hearing Link. It was at several of their support meetings that I became so aware of just how many individuals are living within the community with severe or profound hearing loss, often for many years and many not having been offered or considering cochlear implantation as an alternative to the optimal hearing amplification they had with aids.
Their tales paralleled mine, but were often of significantly longer duration and I witnessed how it impacted directly upon their employment, socializing, self- confidence and psychological status.
Just five months after my profound hearing loss, with no improvement in my hearing, I was assessed and considered fit for implantation and underwent the brief operation three months later.
After switch on, one month later, and several tuning sessions I had such a significant improvement in my hearing that I was gradually able to use both the mobile phone and the telephone, with relative ease. Hearing became rather more natural and the act of hearing no longer tiring. I was able to return to work within a year of losing my hearing and now function remarkably well, working and consulting very much as I had done previously.It was the dramatic difference of this truly transformative piece of technology, the cochlear implant, which made this possible.
Sadly the story for less informed individuals is not quite the same. My return to Practice emphasized to me just how much of an iceberg of unmet need lies within the community at large, with many very able individuals and sadly their GPs assuming wrongly that they have no options after optimal provision of hearing aids and seem reduced to a second class life of social isolation, loss of self-esteem and frequently unemployment.
I would sincerely hope that this technology can be utilized to the full and so many others might benefit as I have.
* This blog is part of a series that @CMAJBlogs is publishing in the run up to the International Conference on Physician Health #ICPH2014 to be hosted by the British Medical Association September 15-17 in London, UK