So January 14th 2015 is the day I tentatively rejoined the hearing world thanks to medical science.
I had deliberately kept my expectations of the implant low as advised by the audiologists to save any initial disappointment. The switch on is apparently the worst part of the whole process as some people are left disheartened by what little they can hear and the quality of sound – remember this is not natural hearing, it is electrical!
Obviously the switch on ranges from person to person, it is dependent on how your brain reacts to the electrical currents being zapped to your brain and obviously the individual’s medical history can determine how they react to the implant – i.e. someone who has been deaf for a very long period of time may not gain as much benefit from the implant because their brain cannot remember how sounds used to be and match that to what is now being heard.
Thankfully, my own experience yesterday was positive and a fantastic starting point to build on in the coming weeks and months.
I was extremely nervous going in to the appointment as I had no idea of what to expect and what the process was but I didn’t need to worry, the audiologist was wonderful and explained everything to me.
The audiologist unpacked a massive box (I seriously thought there must have been a TV in there it was that huge!) of equipment that is now mine to keep, it included my speech processor along with an array of different batteries and battery holders, three different magnets in varying strengths, a charger for the rechargeable batteries, a travel case, spare parts, two screwdrivers(!), and a box with something called dry bricks for drying out the processor at night – apparently they are susceptible to moisture. It all came in a metal briefcase which looked like something James Bond might carry around!
After spending some time explaining what all the equipment was for, it was time to be switched on. I was given my new speech processor which was attached to the computer programme by a cable and electrical signals were first sent through to my brain to check that all the channels were working and all the impulses had been stimulated – they had, which was the first bit of good news. The current sounded to me like interference from a mobile phone but it was short and sweet.
The next part was to select a volume for each of the channels – there are 12 channels varying from the low pitches to the high and each channel needs to be individually set to a volume that is ‘loud but comfortable’ before they are played back to you so you can assess whether they are at the appropriate levels. To me, the channels sounded like piano keys which was rather nice.
Once the volumes for each channel had been set it was time to be properly switched on – this was a very surreal experience. I was advised that the first 5 minutes of switch on is weird but that gradually it will begin to settle down. My initial reaction was one of hysterical laughing – everyone sounded like an extremely high pitched little school girl giggling – even my partner! The audiologist, my mother and my partner all took it in turns to speak directly to me to see if I could distinguish the different pitches/accents etc. At first I couldn’t – everyone sounded high pitched and giggly but gradually I noticed that they became less and less high pitched and sounded more like how I remembered their voices. The voices all still had a bit of a high pitched edge to them, especially at the end of sentences but this has since calmed down.
My own voice however, is just plain strange!! For the past 10/11 months I have not really heard my own voice, I have felt myself talking and could feel the vibrations in my throat but was not really aware of the sound of my voice so it has come as a surprise to me. I have also noticed that I am not really aware of the volume of my voice – I sound extremely loud to myself but I have been told that I am talking really softly. The audiologist has advised that over time this will change, I will be able to control the pitch and volume of my voice as I become more comfortable with the implant.
There is the potential for four different programmes with the CI – these can be adapted for different situations, if you were a music fan, a particular programme could be adapted to enhance the enjoyment of music for example. I currently have four slightly different programmes. Two main programmes and a further two that are the same but have a higher volume. Apparently after a week or so, I will be wanting to turn the volume up so these programmes will be handy. In fact, I already have changed the programme, on day two!
The Med-El Opus 2 (my selected device) comes with a little remote control so that the programmes can be changed and the volume increased easily. There is no function on the actual speech processor to change the programmes which is useful as it means that you don’t need to take off the speech processor to change/adjust anything.
The next stage was to see the Speech and Language Therapist who would go through different word and sounds to see if I could distinguish the difference between the vowels, consonants and similar sounding words like cat and mat. The therapist was South African and had a strong accent which I picked up almost immediately which I felt chuffed with as apparently accents can be a difficult thing to pick up with the CI.
She went through about 5 or 6 sets of words/sentences/sounds and on all but one of the assessments I scored between 90-100% which I was really pleased with. The last assessment was her saying random words with a sheet of paper in front of her face so I couldn’t lip read – I found this one the hardest, I am not sure whether this was because of the words in general or because I knew that this was the last assessment for the day and my brain began to switch off but the therapist was not worried about this at all and said that my results were promising.
Obviously I am aware that this is just day 1 and I have a LONG way to go before I fully benefit from the CI but I am pleased that the initial tuning session has been a success and I am hearing more than I did going in to the appointment which is a bonus!
The audiologist and therapist are of the opinion that because I am young (pah!) and it has been a relatively short amount of time since my hearing loss (to me it’s been forever) my brain will adapt quite easily as I can still remember how sounds used to be before I had the hearing loss. My brain has also had to adapt during the last 10/11 months as I previously didn’t wear a hearing aid in my left ear and so it had to relearn how to hear sounds from that ear after being unstimulated for 13 years. It is hopeful that my hearing will be better than it was BEFORE the hearing loss, which would be amazing.
I currently have the bare minimum functions enabled on my speech processor at the moment, to avoid my brain becoming too overloaded with information, but with time I can introduce new elements such as the Loop system, music and potentially the telephone! I say potentially as many implantees’ still cannot get any benefit from using the phone so this is still a potential permanent impediment from my hearing loss. After three weeks I can also gradually reintroduce my left hearing aid as they want implantees’ to give their brain a chance to adapt to the implant rather than relying on the hearing aid, also sound from the aid will be completely different to sound from the CI so wearing them both from the outset will just confuse the brain!
Each appointment for the next 6 weeks will focus on tuning my CI, making the channels louder or softer and fine tuning the programmes so that I can get maximum benefit. I also have a lot of homework to do – there are lots of online resources I can use to train my brain by listening to different voices, male or female and incorporating background noises to mimic everyday situations. Hopefully this will enable me to drown out the noises I don’t need and focus on the individual / individuals speaking.
Already I am noticing sounds that I may not have heard for the past year, such as the power tools whirring away outside the office, the sound of the train conductor making an announcement, a mobile phone ringing (FYI – according to me, my mum’s mobile phone text tone sounds like a dead cat in case you were interested at all) and the sound of other people far away in the office talking. It is slightly overwhelming – especially on the morning commute today with so many people talking at once – but I know in time I will adjust to this. I even heard my boss talking away on the telephone this morning; the days of him being able to gossip about me are over – Sorry Steve!
Physically, you cannot really notice the external parts, especially when my hair is down and luckily the colour I chose near enough perfectly matches my hair so it will not be too obvious that it is there.
Like I mentioned, I have a long way to go yet but I am excited to see changes already and have my fingers crossed that I will keep on benefitting as I learn to adjust every day.
2015 is looking good so far!