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Life in stereo – on cochlear implants

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A picture of a man, Adam Ledlow.

Life in stereo – on cochlear implants
By Adam Ledlow
Writer/Editor, Vibes Magazine, Marketing and Communications

It was early February that I found myself back on the operating table, wrapped in warming blankets, tangled in a mess of tubes and wires, about to have life-altering surgery – yet again.

Nurses milled about, readying surgical tools and equipment. An intern nervously questioned me about allergies. The anesthesiologist made a joke about using an oversized mallet to put me under.

Eventually, a doctor came by to verify which ear they would be operating on. It was my time to joke: “It’s my left, but if you cut me open and find there’s a cochlear implant already in there, just sew me up and flip me over to the other side.”

To be safe, the doctor marked my forehead with an arrow pointed left. With the oxygen mask now secured over my face, I drifted off dreaming of life in stereo in 5…4…3…2…

This was the scene on Feb. 4, just before receiving my second cochlear implant at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. But the journey that led me to the operating table began many years before.

I was born hearing and went through elementary and most of high school assuming that it would always be that way. Nearing the tail end of high school, though, I could tell something was slipping. By my first year of university, at the request of my Mom, I finally got my hearing tested. The test results showed I had moderate to severe hearing loss in both ears and soon received my first pair of hearing aids.

Initially, my hearing loss was chalked up to a combination of noise exposure from music and eardrum damage suffered on a flight two years before (Side note: Don’t fly when you’re sick unless you have to), but as the years went by, my hearing continued to slip away. As time went on, my teeny-tiny, I-don’t-want-to-wear-hearing-aids hearing aids graduated to half-shell, then whole shell and ultimately behind-the-ear hearing aids – the most powerful of the lot.

Frustrated by the quickening pace of my continued loss, I consulted Ear, Nose and Throat specialists, acupuncturists, and herbalists in an attempt to find the cause of the loss – or at least find a way to slow it down. At age 25, a doctor told me matter-of-factly that there was no discernable cause for my hearing loss, but that it would continue to decline until it was gone for good – so I’d better get used to the idea.

So I did get used to the idea – but not in a good way. I took a reduced role at work so I wouldn’t have to attend conferences or use the phone. I avoided social situations and family gatherings, preferring to fade into the background than struggle through another misheard conversation.

Eventually my hearing loss progressed to the point where hearing aids weren’t doing the trick anymore. An audiologist pointed me to Sunnybrook’s cochlear implant program as an option. There was a bit of kicking and screaming on my part initially, but eventually I relented and agreed to take part in an information session. While they don’t restore hearing, the surgically implanted devices essentially provide artificial or bionic hearing for the recipient, giving a sensation of sound to individuals – like myself – who no longer benefit from hearing aids. At the close of the session, I was able to count myself among the cochlear-converted, ready for my chance to hop on the operating table.

Five months later, I went under the knife, receiving the implant in my right ear. After allowing the 16-staple incision that curves around the top and back of my ear a month to heal, I returned to Sunnybrook for my initial “hook-up.” The “hook-up” is where you receive a hearing aid-like device which serves as your “ear” to the world, communicating with the implant itself to help you process and comprehend sound.

At the point the device is turned on for the first time, the sensation of sound – at least from the perspective of someone who grew up hearing – is, admittedly, bizarre.  The initial result is different for everyone, but for me it was a combination of staticky, high-pitched, squelchy, crackly noise. “It sounds like aliens fighting underwater” was one of my favourite phrases at the time.

However, in a relatively short span of time, your brain starts making sense of all these new sounds. Eventually those aliens fighting underwater morph into what they really are: kids fighting in the kitchen.

Fast-forward more than a year, and the effects have been life changing. I no longer linger in the background during conversations. I can use the phone more confidently than I have in years. I don’t stress out at the prospect of socialization. I can hear and understand my wife and kids again – a mixed blessing, depending on the day.

My success was significant enough that shortly after my initial hook-up, I was asked by Sunnybrook if I would like to get a second implant in my left ear as part of a pilot program. Traditionally, adults are only provided with a single implant – simply due to lack of funding. The pilot program is designed to convince the government to provide additional funding to allow more adults to benefit from bilateral implants. Needless to say, I eagerly accepted the chance to enjoy life in stereo.

Two weeks out of surgery, I was back resting on the couch, soaking up all that daytime TV had to offer, and anxiously awaiting my next hook-up. If my success with my new implant mirrors that of the old, in a matter of a few months my hearing may be comparable to my pre-hearing loss days. And that sounds great to me. 

--Adam Ledlow is Writer/Editor, Marketing and Communications, at CHS. He also acts as a mentor for incoming patients at Sunnybrook’s cochlear implant program and participates in cochlear implant-related research at the hospital.

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