Part 1. The Decision
My name is Bruce Sloane. I am an 82-year-old man and live in a small town in Virginia about 80 miles west of Washington, DC. I started wearing hearing aids more than 30 years ago after I went to an ENT because of mild but continual ringing in my ears. The doctor examined me, said there was nothing wrong with my external ears and said that the ringing was called “tinnitus.” He said not much could be done about it and that tinnitus often was accompanied by some loss in hearing. With that, he sent me down the hall to an audiologist who gave me my first hearing test. The test showed mild hearing loss in some higher frequencies—not enough to need hearing aids, but enough so that my hearing should be retested yearly. The retest one year later showed more hearing loss. And the test the next year showed even more. It was time to get hearing aids.
My Hearing History
I've been wearing bilateral hearing aids for more than 30 years. I have owned about 10 pairs, each one more powerful (and expensive) than the last. As I needed more amplification, I switched to behind-the ear (BTE) aids. I didn’t mind this, as I felt that my poor hearing was nothing to hide; the BTE aids made it more visible and alerted people that I had a hearing problem. At yearly hearing tests, I've watched my hearing slowly deteriorate, decibel by decibel.
Two years ago, after testing and getting new hearing aids, my audiologist said, "Have you ever considered getting a cochlear implant?" I replied, "I thought you had to be deaf as a post to get a cochlear implant." My audiogram showed severe to profound hearing loss—60 decibels to no hearing at all--in both ears in the middle and upper frequencies, where most speech occurs. In the very low frequencies, there was a mild loss.
An Attentive Audiologist
She then explained that the standards have changed, and that I probably met both Medicare and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines for cochlear implant candidates. I thought it was unlikely that I would meet these guidelines. I had new HAs, and I could function OK. Who needs such a contraption, to say nothing of an operation. And cochlear implants were for deaf children and adults who had lost their hearing for one reason or another. I wasn’t deaf—I could still hear, I thought—or could I?
What the audiologist said stuck in my mind. I had trouble understanding my wife’s speech. It often sounded garbled. We both missed the comfortable conversation and easy back and forth talk we once shared. I could rarely understand anyone on the phone and was always asking the caller to talk louder. Even when they did, it just sounded like they were mumbling. In groups I usually understood little, and the comments I made were often "off the wall" and out of context. I belonged to several organizations but usually sat quietly in meetings because I could not understand most of what was said. I stopped driving the ambulance as a volunteer for the local rescue squad because I couldn't understand what was being said on the radio, and often did not understand the EMT’s instructions.
Could a cochlear implant help? I didn’t know.
A Chance Supermarket Interaction
A few days after that, my wife and I were waiting in the checkout line at the supermarket. My wife was talking to the woman in line behind us. Somebody said something to me that I didn’t understand and my wife said, “Oh, he’s hard of hearing.”
The woman she was talking with said, “So am I. In fact, I’m totally deaf and have a cochlear implant.” The woman and I started talking. She lost her hearing suddenly and completely several years ago after taking antibiotics and had a cochlear implant a year after that. She took off the processor behind her ear and showed it to me. I asked her where she had it done and who did it. The doctor and clinic were about an hour’s drive from my house. I wondered why my audiologist didn’t know of this resource. The woman thought her CIs were life savers and her doctor was fantastic. I asked for his name and phone number, which she was delighted to give me—in fact, she had his number memorized.
The checkout clerk was listening to us and holding up the line of shoppers (who didn’t seem to mind, they were listening, too) joined the conversation, saying that a few minutes ago, a woman came by with young twin boys and both had an implant. I was amazed. I’m surrounded by cochlear implants, I thought.
When I got home I looked up the doctor on the Internet. His credentials were impeccable, and he received high marks from his patients. I went to his website and left a brief note describing my condition and requesting an appointment. A day later I received an email telling me I was scheduled for a CI evaluation in two months. The office wanted a copy of my last hearing evaluation from my current audiologist and they would be sending me some forms and information.
The next day I visited my audiologist and asked them to send the doctor the requested information. I also told them that the next time someone asks about a cochlear implant, that he was the person to contact.
I was on the way! Two months seemed like a long time to wait. But when I considered I had been wearing hearing aids for 30 years, I figured I could wait a little bit longer.