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Psychosomatic Hearing Loss? My Cochlear Implant Story

I woke up deaf one morning. It was during the Spring of 1971, I was living in Anchorage, Alaska. No warning, no nothing.

I was a 17 year-old high school student with perfectly normal hearing! I heard fine when I went to sleep. Somehow, during the night -- something happened, something broke or something that was perhaps very tentative or hanging by a thread -- finally broke.

I didn't know I was actually deaf. I went to the ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor. He said I had ''fluid'' in my ears and he gave me ear drops to take home. He thought that was going to be the end of the matter. Not so!

My hearing was not restored with the ear-drops. The next thing I knew I was on my way to Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. My father was a career Air Force man and I was flown from Alaska to Texas on a military medical transport plane.

Two weeks of testing provided no clue as to why I was deaf! It was determined that I had a ''conversion reaction'' or hysterical deafness! They basically could not find a cause, so they determined it was all in my mind!

When I was young, I had many ear infections. Sometimes that's just bad luck, and sometimes it's caused by environmental factors.

I was told that when I was in first grade, I lost my hearing and had surgery to clear out scar tissue and my hearing was restored. In retrospect, I really don't know what was done to my ears at that time. I do know that my parents chain-smoked and I once read an article stating that children of parents who smoked had a higher incidence of ear infections. Then again, ear infections with or without smoking in the house, is the number one reason children go to the doctor!

When we lived in Biloxi, MS, my sister and I and many other neighborhood kids used to follow the mosquito trucks on our bicycles for fun. Basically those were trucks that drove around releasing mosquito repellent in a thick white cloud throughout the neighborhood. All the kids rode their bikes through this cloud of poison for ''fun.'' Who knows how that might have affected my hearing or general health!

Back home again, my family was told I needed to be put in the psych ward. If I refused, my family could lose their medical privileges! So off I went for a six week stay in the mental ward, complete with barred windows and barred doors. I was considered a ''flight risk'' and confined to the floor. Interesting to say the least! I was put on drug therapy and they even tried to hypnotize me. They put me into group therapy. I was newly deafened and did not have good lip reading skills. I learned later that the people in my group had been told to treat me with hostility and to try to make me mad enough to ''forget'' I was deaf. I also went through a week of shock treatment! I demanded to be discharged! They let me go home against their recommendation. I was told to ''come back when you are ready to hear again!''

Four years later, knowing full well I did not have a mental problem, I found a doctor willing to review my medical records to see if there was something else that could be done. There were many things that could be done! He noticed they had never bothered to do an evoked potential test on me. The one test that could prove my hearing loss was ''organic'' was finally done. The actual test was called an auditory brainstem response (ABR) test. The verdict was bilateral nerve damage of idiopathic (unknown) origin.

Yippee!!!!!! I was not crazy. Unfortunately, the diagnosis did ''permanentize'' my hearing loss in my mind. Prior to the ABR, I was sort of clinging to the hope that my hearing would just come back if I tried hard enough. After the ABR, I knew it wouldn't come back. It was gone forever.

By 1985, I was married and we had one daughter. My husband was in the Air Force on a remote assignment in Iceland. I decided to stay in the States and went to Connecticut to stay with my family for a year. In September of that year, my sister read a newspaper article about a man who had received a cochlear implant in a neighboring town. She immediately called the phone number given and before I knew it I was sitting in the office of my new ear doctor.

I was tested and passed with flying colors. My cochlear implant surgery was scheduled! I was implanted with a Storz 4-channel cochlear implant on November 5th, 1985 during a 5-hour surgery. At that time, cochlear implants were still considered experimental and it was a definite leap of faith for me! The operation was a big deal (almost 20 years ago) and it was pretty much standing room only in the operating room that day. My surgery was postponed because one surgeon's flight from San Francisco was delayed and he was assisting! The night before the surgery I was woken up over and over by smiling doctors who asked my permission to attend the surgery.

The first month after hook-up was amazing! After 14 years of silence I could hear environmental sounds--for example, the dishwasher changing cycles and the phone ringing. I could tell the difference between male and female voices, but I was not able to tell what they were saying. I could hear planes overhead and traffic sounds. Music sounded pretty bad--so I didn't really bother with it.

During the second month, I couldn't hear the phone ring anymore and other sounds disappeared. My audiologists tried in vain to keep it going, but one channel after another broke down and by the fifth month I had one channel left and every time I wore my speech processor I got an electric shock! I was told to take it off and not try to use it.

With hope that they might come up with a ''fix,'' I left the internal parts in my head for five years. I finally had the device removed in September, 1990 after a very nasty ear infection in the implanted ear left me at home with visiting nurses coming to the house to hook me up to IV's! I decided to wait until they had ''perfected'' implants a bit more before getting another. I knew that one day I would have another implant. My failed cochlear implant gave me just enough taste of the future that I could wait and when the time was right, I would do it again.

Life went on and I moved to California, divorced and remarried.

In September 2001, I was sent an e-mail from a friend about an entire family who had all received cochlear implants. I did a bit of digging around and found that implants had evolved to the point where speech discrimination was pretty much a given! My wait was over!

This time around I did a lot of research into cochlear implants and found it a fascinating subject! I signed up for CI forums on the Internet and requested materials from all the CI manufacturers. I spent nine months researching them and made my decision about which device I wanted.

After some major insurance hassles, I was soon in the operating room for my second cochlear implant! On June 18, 2002, I was implanted. My daughter and my husband were there with me. One month later, we all met again at the hospital for the big ''hook up'' day. It was a long day, but when I left the hospital I could hear -- amazingly weird hearing, but I knew to expect that at first -- the ducks and chipmunks and freakzoid Darth Vader voices--I was on my way!

As I write this, it has been 6 months since I was hooked-up with my new cochlear implant. Each day is a miracle! I was able to start talking on the phone three weeks after my hook up! At first it was just short conversations, but as time went on, I was able to talk for longer periods, and having 45 minute phone conversations with friends and family members is getting to be commonplace!

I am much more outgoing now and will just walk up and chat with absolutely anyone and everyone. During my deaf years I avoided socializing because it was so stressful. There was a period of time (14 years) when I read an entire book every day, sort of a refuge from the solitary confinement of silence.

Today I listen to music like there is no tomorrow! It sounds very close to the way it used to sound. I have an excellent auditory memory and am very pleased with the way things have turned out!

For my birthday, my daughter and her fiance took me to the Paul McCartney concert at the Anaheim Pond Stadium. That was such a fairytale for me--sort of like going through a ''rags to riches'' story. I had never dreamed I would enjoy a rock concert again! She wanted to make it special--we took a limo and the 10 of us sat right up in front of the stage. I recognized almost all the songs and it was a fantastic teary-eyed event!

Things are getting better and better. My friends and family are constantly commenting on how my voice has changed! I am lucky enough that I was asked to participate in some clinical trials. The manufacturer of my implant is headquartered only a two hour drive away and my friend, who also has a CI, and I were both asked to be part of these trials. This is exciting and wonderful!

Thinking back to that girl I used to be and all that I went through to get to this point seems like a long ordeal. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. Hearing loss is such a traumatic thing to go through. I hope that anyone who might benefit from a cochlear implant will check into it. Life is too short to hang back when you could be listening to MUSIC!

Special Thanks to Peg Williams at CIAI for allowing us to publish this updated version of their previous publication (Pyschosomatic Hearing Loss? My Cohlear Implant Story, Debra Hollingsworth, CONTACT, volume 17 number 2, Second quarter 2003)

For more information about cochlear implants CLICK HERE.

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