A Big Change
Twenty-two days after surgery, my cochlear implant was activated. I will be honest: I had some very mixed feelings on activation day. It was all so new to me that I needed time to process from a hearing standpoint and an emotional one.
Of greatest importance, the implant did come on; there’s always a risk that it won’t. All but one electrode worked. With 16 electrodes, having 15 viable ones is still considered very good. I was not only hearing with the implant but also experiencing pitch and volume recognition. These were all positive results pointing in the right direction.
Emotionally, however, it was hard to appreciate the sound coming from the implant because of the strange quality. I was sad and scared that my hearing would always sound bad with the implant, and I had some fleeting thoughts of regret.
My audiologist tried to reassure me that it would get better, but the change was so extreme that it was difficult to believe her. Despite my emotions trying to get the better of me, I knew logically this was a process, so I dug deep and persisted. I would have to use the implant as much as possible — despite the sound quality — and return for further adjustments once I adapted to the electrical input.
After activation, I was thankful to have some downtime. I reached out to many friends and colleagues, comparing notes with those that had been through this process. Many of my audiology friends warned me that I needed to set my expectations low, but I didn’t know what they meant. Not really.
There’s just no vocabulary for describing electric hearing. There’s really no way to prepare someone for this. My concept of hearing with an implant was that I would hear an enhancement of what I was used to hearing. This is not what happened for me. I’m hearing in a completely new way. It’s not good or bad, just very different.
I think it’s only human and natural to face something this different and sort of panic a bit. Some moments of panic did take hold. Had I made a mistake? It took me 12 hours to get a more positive mindset, take a step back to adjust my expectations, and start feeling thankful to hear with my implant.
My attitude started to adjust pretty fast. About eight hours after activation, I took off my implant to show it to a patient. Suddenly I fell back into my deaf, silent world on the left side. I was a bit surprised that in only eight hours the implant had supplied my brain with awareness, balance, and a sense of presence on that side.
I had volume. Maybe it’s not the quality of sound I wanted, but it was sound, and I immediately wanted to put it back on! I felt this was my first step toward success. I wanted to wear my implant. Whew! I needed to give my brain and my implant more credit. Already, my brain was starting to like this.
I’m going to attempt to explain what I heard on activation day. It was Day 1, and things were expected to change rapidly every day and continue changing in the coming weeks and months. Keep in mind I was hearing sound electrically, not acoustically.
My best description is that speech sounded thin and lacking in body. Sounds were shrill and tinny. My voice came across like Minnie Mouse on helium, and my laugh sounded cartoonish. The fan on my air conditioner at home sounded like a wind tunnel. Some things sounded like a kazoo or the whiny sound of wind whipping against a house or across the roof of a car at high speed.
It was hard to even recognize speech at first. With each passing hour, I would understand more and more. During the hours I was being tested at activation, I knew speech was there, but I had to rely heavily on lip-reading to understand it. Later that day, I started to hear a few words without having to lip-read.
Some words came through clearer than others. The word “which,” for instance, sounded pretty normal. While his head was turned, my husband, Phil, said, “I’m trying to figure out which one is which,” and with my implant on I heard him! That was really something.
I was working hard to hear and figured that would be the case for some time. Speech would likely be a challenge for several months, but I expected to further improve each day.
I had an exciting discovery within the first week of activation: I could understand “S” sounds, which I hadn’t heard for many years. Phil said my speech was already better, with less of a nasal quality. I was surprised he said this because I don’t feel like I can hear my own voice well. I do hear myself — just differently.
To maximize the implant, I began online auditory training classes that helped exercise my listening skills. The exercises would appear easy but were actually quite difficult with an implant. For instance, I had to determine whether a sound represented clicking keys on a keyboard or a horse galloping. During the first few weeks, I could not tell.
I also tried to focus on speech sounds by listening to spoken words. I would hear a word — “pick,” for example — and have to choose it from a group of words. This proved nearly impossible at first, but every day I worked on it and slowly but surely started to understand some of the words.
The brain is pretty amazing in its power to adapt, and I have surprised myself many times along this journey.
What’s next for Dr. Yoder on her life-changing cochlear implant journey? Stay in the know here and on Facebook