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Cochlear Implants: My Experience Returning to Human Voices

From the beginning of my discussions about cochlear implants, I thought the greatest benefit would be ''balance'' with regard to hearing. I intended to wear my hearing aid on the right ear and have the cochlear implant on the left ear (the ''dead'' ear) and then I would have stereo sound. Seemed to make sense to me!

With one hearing aid on one ear, and no sound on the other ear, I had problems knowing where the sounds were coming from, and even my doctor agreed this would balance my world. He spoke candidly about the probability that I would be able to hear ''environmental sounds'' with my cochlear implant.

I was fortunate, and immediately after my cochlear implant was turned on, I was able to hear right away, but I heard ''stuff.'' The voices weren't what I had expected at all! I wanted the sounds of human words. The sounds I was hearing in those early days with my cochlear implant were more like Alvin and the Chipmunks - they were indeed sounds, but I wanted real voices. Birds, dogs, tea kettles, and clothes dryers all make environmental sounds -- but I was never personal friends with any of those...I wanted personal, human communication! To hear and understand human voices was my personal goal.

Because I was totally deaf for only a very short time, perhaps I didn't appreciate the early cochlear implant sounds as much as other patients do -- but I had an advantage -- I could easily remember what sound was.

About three days after my cochlear implant was activated, I faced a rather significant challenge. We had two teenaged boys, our two daughters and my husband, all at the kitchen table talking and laughing.

I could easily tell my husband's voice when he spoke and I thought it was great that he was the one I could hear first. One of the boys (he hates this) has a high-pitched nasal voice and I actually thought his voice was my daughter's! In the ''blink of an eye'' I realized one of my daughters has a fast, gotta-get-everything-said-at-once style, while the other speaks more slowly, and when she's around me, she enunciates perfectly.

Unfortunately, I was heartbroken when I realized the rumbling voice I was hearing was my son's voice. The way the cochlear implant had been set (called the ''MAP'') made my son's voice a deep roar! Why could I understand my husband's voice but not a 15 year olds?

My husband is an electrical engineer. That night I told him about my observations and sound perceptions and he started rattling on about frequency and loudness and other brainy stuff. Then he stopped and calmly said ''This means your brain is already recognizing our individual patterns all you need is adjustments in the program.'' It was a relief to think it might be easy to fix!

My audiologist thought it was great that my husband was able to help me understand these issues. I started to keep notes relating my perceptions of sounds heard, as compared to what they really were, so ''tweaks'' in the MAPS were easy and focused.

When speaking with or listening to one or two individuals, I have no hearing problems. I can tell, without looking, when one person finishes a sentence and the other begins. I do tend to sit at an angle, or directly opposite them -- just in case I need to lip-read. I am still amazed that I can lip-read and never realized how much I relied on it in the past.

I have never understood the reasoning behind background music in restaurants...It was hard to deal with before I had the hearing aids, and it's hard to deal with now. In noisy situations, I feel like I'm constantly fighting the Muzak, the clink of the silverware, and other noises too. I vastly prefer a quiet setting. Occasionally, a family member or friend will have to order for me in noisy situations, at my request, if I cannot understand the waitperson.

Generally speaking, while using my cochlear implant,
I can hear and participate in conversations in the car. However, our cars are small and we do sit close together. I am not sure how I would do if we still had our van or Suburban, and particularly if I was in the front seat while trying to understand people from the back seat!

Telephones are still a problem. I have Meniere's Disease and there are times when I do have poor comprehension of speech on the telephone. Nonetheless, I can hear the computer generated voice of the 24 hour bank teller, and that's how I balance my checkbook. My son says it is because it is the same word everytime, ''zero.''

I have been involved in music throughout my entire life. I started piano in second grade and was the only third grader in our elementary school choir. As a youngster, I was involved in music through school and church, singing, leading children's groups, band and even playing handbells.

At this time, with my cochlear implant, I am still lacking in my ability to understand some musical sounds...I prefer the staccato tapping of snare drums over the heavy resonance of piano and organ. I am partial to trumpets and tubas. I have learned my son's music well enough that I can nudge my husband when his tuba solo is coming up and then I'm able to hear his part. Music is very important to me and I am glad to be able to appreciate it again!

We have a surround sound system in our family room. Even while I was experiencing deafness, some songs were so familiar I could ''feel'' them. Now those songs are easier to follow and enjoy because I can ''hear'' them. The first music I heard through my cochlear implant was the Backstreet Boys. They were my youngest daughter's favorite group through her high school years. My son said I went from my music in the 1970's to my daughter's music in the 1990's -- and still didn't listen to any music worth remembering!

I can tell you that after all I have been through, the most important people to me are my family, my audiologist and my surgeon. We have been through this together, and it has been a wonderful and rewarding challenge and experience.

To learn about human voices and other sounds I have needed coaching, time and patience, My family has been great, loving and supportive.

My surgeon noted that he has seen many supportive families, but none as irreverent as mine! We tease constantly and they test me constantly with sounds and words. They even made up their own wordchart of the words I was able to understand, because everyone got tired of ''airplane, baseball, upstairs, downtown.'' They substituted ''dingbat, doughwad'' and ''dip-stick.''

I have not purchased any assistive devices other than those provided with the cochlear implant package. I watch TV and listen to music in an open room and do occasionally have trouble with words and voices on TV. However, the news and other talk channels give lots of listening practice where the camera is focused on the speakers face for times when I need those extra clues.

In the near future, I hope we can better address the telephone situation, but all of my doctors have given me their e-mail addresses for communication.

In summary, I have to say that the miracle of a cochlear implant is so great that I am overwhelmed with satisfaction and the ability to hear and understand human voices again.

For more information on cochlear implants, please visit:
Advanced Bionics
Cochlear Corp

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