“Come on, you too!” demanded the company nurse ” You have to set an example; you need to have your hearing tested like everyone else. ” Protesting that in my role as MD I had never spent excessive amounts of time on the factory floor permitted me no escape; I was frog marched off for the test. “You’ve got a bit of a problem,” was her response to the test results, “You’ll need to have your hearing looked into properly.”
Back in my office I sat pondering this situation. The news that I had been diagnosed with a hearing loss was indeed something of a shock. I wasn’t deaf, I protested to myself. I could hold normal conversations, listen to music and the radio. Then, a comment made a couple of months ago by one of my international colleagues came back to me, “You know that you come across as very aggressive at our management meetings.”
The context of this comment had related to what appeared to have been a habit of mine at our European management meetings. These multi-day meetings usually took place in a huge hotel conference room with 20 or so executives seated in a horseshoe pattern with the particular country CEO, whose turn it was to present his results, at the open end talking with the aid of an overhead projector. Ranged across the closed end of the horseshoe were the President and his team who would freely interrupt to fire off question after question. I hadn’t considered previously why I responded to many of the questions to me by walking the length of the horseshoe and then standing over whoever had asked the question. I could see how aggressive this behaviour might have appeared but then the initial questioning was often aggressive and I felt that I was merely standing my ground.
As I pondered the nurse’s unwelcome news I realised that the underlying reason for my ‘aggressive’ behaviour was that I was obviously struggling to hear questions from the other end of what were always very large rooms. Thinking further back, I knew I had previously had acute hearing. Working in the audio industry years before I could recall playing around in the lab with a signal generator with colleagues and finding that my hearing extended way beyond anyone else’s. As a consequence, many a night’s sleep when travelling had been ruined by some faint sound that kept me awake.
Referred to an ENT consultant shortly afterwards, I was tested once again and the results confirmed the findings of our company nurse. I was then taken through a complete medical history questionnaire. After responding to one question relating to drugs administered to treat Pulmonary Tuberculosis as a teenager, he sat back and roared
“Classic, delayed reaction! Still, you’d rather be deaf than dead, wouldn’t you?”
It seemed that the key drug (streptomycin) I had been injected for months had the known side effect of ototoxicity leading to sensorineural hearing loss. I learnt that there was no known treatment and it was likely to worsen over time.
“You’d better look into a hearing aid.” Was the parting comment.
Shortly afterwards, at the age of 41, I received a small behind the ear aid for my right ear. This improved matters but I felt embarrassed wearing it. Crazy as it might seem, I would remove it before important meetings and would struggle as before to hear clearly what was being said and asked.
As predicted after a year or so I was back at my local audiology clinic and being prescribed an aid for my left ear. Within a couple of years I was struggling to hear conversations clearly and returned to the clinic. This time larger and more powerful aids were prescribed. These seemed to restore most of my hearing loss but the aids were large and cumbersome and, although they helped, I hated them. I hated that I had to wear the proof of my disability on display; it fought with my self-image. But slowly I gave in and wore them every waking moment (except when swimming!) as my hearing deteriorated with every passing year. I was managing (just) and hating the aids and their deficiencies more with every passing day.
The aids I was being prescribed at the time were old, analogue technology and very unsophisticated. Chatting one day to the owner of a local business I had got to know quite well, he asked me how I was getting on with my aids. Out poured all my frustrations.
“Let me give you the details of my audiologist.” Offered Ray who went on to describe in detail his similar experiences and joy at his new, digital aids.
“They’re expensive, mind,” Ray went on in his broad Yorkshire dialect “but worth every penny and more.” From a Yorkshire man this was praise indeed.
So, I duly made the contact and, following further tests, was sitting some weeks later waiting for my new aids to be fitted and tested. These new aids were no longer behind the ear but were ‘completely in canal’ (CIC) fitting deep and snug into my ears. With the aids in place a transfer of the programming took place and they were ready for use.
“Can you hear me now?” Enquired Colin, the elderly owner of the long established business. I was almost rendered speechless with amazement. Not only could I hear him clearly but could easy detect subtle nuances in his voice I hadn’t been aware of previously. Even when Colin continued to speak as he moved behind me and then completely out of the room and down the corridor I could easy understand every word he spoke.
A short while later as I walked down the road to where my car was parked I was almost overwhelmed with the cacophony I noise I could hear. I couldn’t help grinning from the sheer pleasure of being able to hear clearly again and must have appeared somewhat idiotic to passers by. Starting up my relatively new car at which I had previously marvelled at its near silence, I now discovered I could hear all manner of noises from under the bonnet! Back home I stood and listened to the noises of the car quietly cooling down whilst birds I had forgotten sang in the trees. Bliss!
My life had improved immeasurably, business meetings became easier and the telephone, television and radio less of a challenge. I was now no longer glued to watching people’s lips in an effort to supplement failing hearing.
Nevertheless, a year later I was once more conscious that my hearing had declined further. Back in Colin’s consulting rooms he tested me once more, showed me the frequencies where my hearing had declined again then made adjustments to the programming. I was almost as good as new again.
That was 15 years ago and a lot has happened in that time. My hearing continued to deteriorate as nerve endings died. Technology continued to improve and every two to three years I changed to the latest technology which would produce some improvement once more. This was proving to be an extremely expensive process (a pair of new aids is equivalent to a cheap new car) but without these continuing improvements I would simply not have been able to continue working in what were the very demanding roles I had.
Early on when the Pound was riding high against the European currencies (and then the Euro) I investigated prices in Germany and Scandinavia and seriously considered a trip abroad to purchase new aids. However, I was beginning to realise that what I was paying for was not just the aids but the continuing expert advice and skills of the audiologist and the relationship we had. It was becoming clear to me that yes, you can test hearing and then programme the aids to fill the shortfall across a wide range of frequencies. However, it seems that the brain doesn’t always agree with the analysis and implementation and throws up problems. It is then necessary to be able to articulate precisely what the problem is, the circumstances in which it is apparent and where in the frequency range it is occurring. All this takes time and skill on the part of the audiologist. And time is money. It was this time and expertise that the NHS seemed unable to provide.
As time has passed, technology has continued to improve but my hearing loss in the mid~high frequencies has now moved into the range deemed ‘profound’. My old audiologist, Colin, decided that the demands of technology were becoming beyond what he wished to keep up with and so sold up. My luck is that Kevan who has bought the business is a technical genius, has great depth and breadth of knowledge of everything on the market and infinite patience. With Kevan’s help I have been able to test most of the major aids on the market. I have become, as a result and of necessity, somewhat of a connoisseur of hearing aids – a ‘petrolhead’ of hearing aids. I can’t identify a winner but at the moment my favourite and the manufacturer of my current aids is the Danish company Widex who produce a smooth and very natural sound.
The greatest problem with losing high frequencies is that one loses the ability to hear or distinguish between certain consonants – the sounds of F, S, H & T going first, soon joined by K and then S, C and H. The situation becomes one of being able to hear someone speaking but being largely incapable of deciphering what it is they are saying e.g. did they say sit, hit, fit or tit? One seeks to use context to provide the answer. However, once the brain has attempted to sort through the possibilities of each possibility, the speaker is two or three sentences further on each of which has raised fresh uncertainties. In one to one situations watching the speaker’s lips can provide vital clues. In many situations this is simply not possible. Female and children’s voices are particularly difficult as they are higher pitched.
The other critical problem is that of hearing a voice within a noisy environment. With normal hearing we seem to be able to focus upon a particular sound (or voice) in much the same way as our eyes can focus (and re-focus rapidly) upon objects far and near and anywhere in-between. Even with glasses we retain this ability. But once an element of technology has been placed between the outside world and our ear drum the ability to focus seems to be lost. Turning up the volume offers no solution and even makes matters worse.
Most manufacturers now offer programmes that transpose higher frequencies down into the wearer’s audible range. I find that this only works (for me) to a very limited extent. Of more use is a programme that greatly reduces background noise allowing one to concentrate on what, for instance, a partner is saying in a crowded restaurant. However, once more, I find this only offers a partial solution.
Technology has begun now to offer some real solutions. For example I now have a device that plugs into the television and transmits the broadcast sound (via a receiver device worn around the neck) directly into my aids. I can also switch off all ambient noise so that this is no distraction and my wife can listen at the volume she chooses. The only problem is that I only realise she is trying to communicate with me when her slipper hits me in the head!
Telephones remain a real challenge but here there are solutions. The first is simply to rely on the loudspeaker function on the handset and this can be supplemented by switching to a programme that boosts speech frequencies. This works not too badly when one is in a quiet environment but, again, not in noisy surroundings. However, I now have a device that allows my mobile phone to send the signal directly to both aids so I can hear the maximum content in both ears. Supplementing this again is the ability to eliminate all ambient sounds with one button. I can also listen to music, streamed by Bluetooth directly to my aids. These advances are not always foolproof in operation but are a big step forward.
In a recent experiment (of sorts) sitting with a friend in a coffee shop that had become extremely noisy, I asked him to phone me. Using my Bluetooth device I was able to shut out all ambient sound and hear his voice clearly in both ears. This offered no solution for my friend, however, and we must have appeared an odd pair! One manufacturer does offer the possibility of a clip-on battery microphone that the hearing impaired can ask a friend to clip to their lapel. This may offer a limited solution but I would have to change my complete setup and might well lose certain other advantages that Widex offer me now.
Currently I’m in the situation where sounds above a certain frequency have gone forever and no technology can stimulate the dead nerves cells. Increasing the volume of these frequencies merely produces painful distortion in neighbouring frequencies. As nerve cells continue to die off my hearing will worsen. I have read that stem cell technology has reactivated hearing in rats and promises the possibility of a solution for humans at some stage but I have no idea if this is a real possibility nor if it would work for me (or even if I could afford it).
My life has been one of facing up to and overcoming challenges, something I have always learnt from even it not all of the challenges were sought or relished. I am aware that my previous, very extrovert behaviour has changed. Indulging in lively repartee is beyond me now as I struggle to work out the context of a word misunderstood three sentences ago. I hate answering the phone knowing that unless it’s someone I know well, I’m highly unlikely to be able to tune into their voice. I hate the trend that has caused companies to replace postal and email addresses with a call centre.
I’m now back with behind the ear aids once more but these are barely visible. However, in one way, I wish that they were more visible, vanity overtaken by practicality. Deafness is an invisible disability and anyone who doesn’t have this problem simply doesn’t understand what it means to the suffer. I’ve been thinking of having some badges made saying ‘Deaf but not stupid’. I’m fortunate that my time in the workplace has come to an end. But deafness afflicts one in six of the UK population with 3.7 million suffers aged between 16 & 64. These suffers in work have a sometimes terrible burden to bear. And the disco & iPod generation may unfortunately find that there has been a terrible price to pay for their musical & social enjoyment.
So now I shun large gatherings that I would once have sought out. I avoid using the phone unless it’s to someone I know well. I thank technology instead for providing Twitter where I can still meet people and enjoy a lively exchange of views. It’s good, but it can’t replace face to face social and business interaction.
When I sold up and retired nearly four years ago I decided (and promised my wife) that I wouldn’t work again. After the novelty of having nothing to do wore off, I started voluntary work with a couple of schemes helping students and young people. I would now like to increase this work (as my brain hasn’t retired at the same pace as the rest of me) but I am finding it extremely difficulty to cope with the hearing challenges presented by a room full of students. Ideally, I would wish to increase the enterprise work with students and resume non-executive and mentoring work. But…
I well remember the days, many years ago, when I had hearing like a bat and could make out every instrument in an orchestra. But I also remember the sleepless nights because someone in the next hotel room was snoring loudly.
So, life may not be perfect now….but at least I have an ‘off’ button and can enjoy the sound of silence whenever I want.