A Cochlear on the Horizon

The beginning of July marked the first anniversary of my sudden hearing loss. A psychiatrist, who’s also deaf, cautioned it could take two years to fully adjust. She may well be right, and on a good day I feel I’m halfway there. Supportive friends encourage me to turn my misfortune into a positive, the challenges into opportunities. Good advice, but just how do you go about that?

My hearing loss has changed the way I try to communicate. Now that it takes more effort and I don’t have the luxury of idle chit chat, my conversations are more directed. They’re also more selective. I can no longer participate in my women’s group meeting in a cafe once a week, but instead I may meet individually from time to time. In actual fact, one-on-one conversations are usually more in depth than in the group setting.

With less hearing, my life might be simplified, but it’s not. People tell me I’m not missing anything. It’s easy for them to say. When I go into a store and can’t hear the shop attendant, that’s not easier. Going out for a meal with friends and being unable to participate in the conversation in the restaurant is discouraging. The few people I still have an ongoing relationship with are more valued because they have adapted to my new circumstance.

Periods of quiet are welcome and I enjoy my own company in a new way. I miss going to jazz and Indian music concerts with Gerard…though I must admit, sometimes, I wasn’t so engaged in the music and it was more of an endurance test to stay to the end! I’d like to say I’m less concerned with FOMO (fear of missing out), reminding myself it’s an illusion. There may be little to miss that is truly worthwhile.

I still have a way to go – constantly vigilant against the insistent roaring in my head goading me to rush; impatient when I can’t hear because there’s ambient noise and the other person doesn’t speak clearly, directly to my face. I get frustrated when I can’t hear what Gerard’s saying to me and he gets equally frustrated. But he still loves me. Always clumsy and accident prone, I’m now even worse. I still speed around on my bike. How can I be so careless when it’s so much more critical for me to be careful? As the neurologist told me, “There’s nothing wrong with your brain, you just need to pay attention!”

Reading is still my sanctuary and even more so now because it doesn’t require the effort of listening. Similarly, at the beach, I can still hear the waves and experience the same sense of focus the ocean’s always brought me. More important, a loss that I can do nothing to change has given me a new gratitude for my husband’s love, the beautiful house he’s created, the relatively easy life we have, and our health and wealth. Things I tended to take for granted.

Of course, I can still easily get derailed. Anticipating a scheduled appointment with a new specialist for a second opinion, I expected to get greater clarification, a new approach to my condition…perhaps even hope? Instead, I got the opposite. A new hearing test revealed I’d lost yet more hearing in one ear. Shocking news because girlfriends tell me my hearing seems better – but Gerard was not surprised. The loss continues in the lower frequencies. More blood clots in the small veins of my inner ear? The hearing specialist recommended a cochlear implant but I wasn’t prepared to make a decision. The next day we left for NYC to visit a good friend with terminal cancer. This helped put things back in perspective.

It took a couple of weeks for me to finally decide to go ahead with the implant. It’s quite different from a hearing aid. Electrodes are implanted right into the cochlea and directly stimulate the auditory nerve to provide ‘a sense of sound’. The receiver, looks like a hearing aid, sitting behind my ear. A totally implanted device is in the works, but not in time for me, sadly.

Success rates for cochlears have supposedly increased from 50% to 80% today. I have talked with/heard of several that have been successful. They say success depends a lot on expectation – you can’t hope for too much. The biggest risk for me is that my tinnitus will increase. In some cases, it’s reported to diminish, in other cases it becomes worse. You also lose whatever natural hearing you have in that ear, but since I only have 12% hearing on my left side, we’ve decided it’s worth all these risks. It may take up to three months to get used to the artificial hearing – voices can sound like quacking ducks at first! But it holds the promise of better word clarity and hearing music again. First step is an evaluation and then surgery will be scheduled. So, for now I must be patient.

Meanwhile, an interesting side development: alerted by a concerned friend, I found a press release online of a study sponsored by Yale, linking a common gut bacteria, roseburia intestinale, with my autoimmune disease, Antiphospholipid Syndrome. Research demonstrated that the normally healthy bacteria has gone berserk and triggered the antibodies that form an irritation in small vessels/veins, causing blood clots and, in my case, responsible for my hearing loss. Until now, no one knew what caused the antibodies. This study is the first real research into the disease and makes me feel no longer neglected by the medical world. Excited, I printed out the article and took it to my regular doctor. He just shrugged and said, “Early days…stay tuned.” Of course, he’s right; this kind of research can take years before it becomes accepted and used to create a cure. The only treatment for APS today is blood thinners which address the symptom and the not the disease itself.

We’re beginning to plan for India next January, but whether I’ll have a cochlear before or after the trip is still uncertain. Either way, I’m less apprehensive than a year ago, and looking forward to another adventure. With all its extremes, India still pulls but is always challenging. With a cochlear implant I may be able to hear again the unique sounds of India – its music, mosque calls, Buddhist chants…perhaps even barking dogs (which I didn’t miss last year!)

Pushkar Revisted

Taking a rickshaw to the bus station in Ajmer we both agreed, now we’ve arrived in India. Women in traditional Rajasthani red and gold saris and scarfs draped over their faces, their husbands with multi colored turbans. The press of people, rickshaws, elaborately painted lorries, cows and dogs; a choke of fumes, a whiff of spice, flies converging on enamel bowls of sweetened curd and trays of milk cake, garish billboards advertising movie stars, politicians and gurus.

The bus we boarded for Pushkar was the most dilapidated tin can we’ve ever had the pleasure to ride in India. The sides no longer rigid, swaying back and forth with every bump in the road. Gerard looked at the back to see the cross members broken and gyrating as if they were doing the twist. All attempts to weld hand bars back to the ceiling had failed. The floor heaved as if an earthquake was about to erupt. As we worked our way over a small mountain pass, on each hairpin turn, the bus snapped and groaned as if it was about to fall into pieces.   We arrived in town grateful that the bus did not expire with us in it.

P1000182My father liked to say, “you should never go back.” He had a cynical streak/view of life and believed that you’ll always be disappointed a second time. Just like people, places will let you down. Gerard and I have proved him wrong over and over again. We go back to Varanasi and Goa year after year and are not let down. Rather, it improves as we become more familiar. But certain expectations inevitably form. I’d loved Pushkar the first time we visited last year. It’s a pretty town, sitting beside a lake surrounded by gentle hills and has a spiritual ambience

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But what I reminisced most about during the past 12 months was our guesthouse, Rising Star. Our spacious room, the family chanting around their household temple downstairs in the evening and the delicious home cooked meals served on the roof. So with a booking made we returned dragging our cases from the bus stop. The two brothers met us with long faces…”Sorry Sir, we don’t have your room for two days.” A girl was supposed to leave but got very sick and couldn’t move. They offered us the only vacant room – dark and damp on the first floor. We didn’t relish moving after two days or into a room where someone had been deathly sick. I felt let down and fearful there wouldn’t be another room in town, and for a while that seemed the case; the rooms we looked at were too noisy, dirty or overpriced. Finally we found the “White House”. And it was just that, painted all in white and very clean; friendly owners, good food, nice room. So once again, we’ve proved my father wrong…you can go back. But sometimes an adjustment is required.

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The first night here, right next to the hotel was a house performing funeral rites. The period of public mourning lasts for 11 days and fortunately for us this was the last. Friends and family assembled and loudspeakers, set up on the roof, blasted live chanters till after midnight. Surprisingly, we managed to sleep through much if it because we were so exhausted from traveling. The following evening a small nearby temple broadcast in a similar fashion more chanting till 11 pm. And of course in the early morning there’s always some temple near and far beckoning over loudspeakers the faithful to come and do their devotion.

Gerard asked our friendly waiter/cook at out roof top restaurant, “Why do all events, weddings, funerals, temples etc, blast from loudspeakers at ear shattering volume. Are they sharing with the community at large?”

“Not really. Indians are a loud bunch.” He replied. We reflected — the horn on the lorry playing musical tunes with horns, the ticket collector on the bus with his piercing whistle. Is it any wonder Gerard suffers from tinnitus?

The waiter continued, “ Everything in India is LOUD. Loud music, loud clothes — so much color, loud food — so much spice.” There must be more to it than that. Maybe it’s a matter of competing with 1.3 billion.

We’ve said it before; traveling in India is not only about India. Today, we ate breakfast with a woman from Croatia who was nine years old when the Yugoslav war broke out. Since visiting Bosnia for work, I’ve had an interest in that part of the world and had made questions about the war. As we talked, the only thing that was clear from her point of view was that the region in general is in worse shape now than before the war. She thinks it needs a single ruler to keep the lid on ancient grudges. But where to find such a ‘benevolent’ leader that actually has the citizens interests at heart? We couldn’t remember meeting a Croatian here before. Both of us were fascinated to hear what she had to say.

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Pushkar is a pleasantly relaxing place to begin our winter sojurn in India. Spending our last afternoon sitting on another rooftop restaurant above the lake, sheltered from the afternoon sun and fanned by a gentle breeze, watching flocks of birds silently circling the water. The sounds from pilgrim bathers below are hushed. The beet, carrot and pomegranate seed salad tastes even better with the view.

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