Nearly six months after my sudden hearing loss I was in my Spanish hospital with my boyfriend, yet again for another consultation.
When I first entered the consultation room, I was dismayed to see yet another Ears Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist whom I hadn’t previously met. It was a specialist who was not aware of my story and who I sceptically assumed was going to ask me to repeat my story yet again, and then tell me that he was sorry, but due to lack of research on my condition, he would be unable to offer me any further help and that he would see me again in three months to see if there were any changes.
Before meeting with the new specialist I had carried out the usual hearing tests. As usual, I was told that nothing had improved. The specialist had a friendly and sensitive manner. He asked me about how my hearing loss had occurred and whether I had previously had any ear-related problems. Then he looked at my hospital notes and told me that my MRI scan was normal. This was probably about the third time I’d been told this information. He said there was some ‘shading’ in an area of the image, but I didn’t hear the rest of what he said, and he didn’t seem to speak about it with any importance. Then he looked at my results from my Brainstem Auditory Evoked Potentials test. He proceeded to explain to me what the results showed. This was the first time the results had been discussed with me in any more detail than just telling me that they showed the same as my hearing test – that I can’t hear in my left ear. He drew a diagram of the ear and showed how each peak on the graph produced from the test, related to different parts of my ear. The results showed that sounds weren’t being heard because sound wasn’t successfully reaching my ‘caracol’. In Spanish, they call the spiral-shaped part of the inner ear known as the cochlea the ‘caracol’; which translates as ‘snail-shell’. So for some unknown reason, sounds weren’t able to be interpreted by way of my cochlea, and hence the relevant signals needed to hear, weren’t being sent to my brain.
The new specialist read my notes from the ENT doctor with whom I had consulted a month earlier in London. He didn’t agree with the diagnosis of Cochlear Hydrops as being the reason for my hearing loss. He explained to me that this is usually a condition that is not continuous and comes in episodes. Although I have the symptoms, mine are continuous, not sporadic. I continuously have pressure in my left ear. I am continuously deaf in this ear. My hearing doesn’t fluctuate. He told me, however, that ultimately the diagnosis isn’t that relevant, as the main point of importance was now finding ways to help make things more bearable for me.
The new specialist then surprised me by asking me about how I was coping. I told him that the insistent pressure in my left ear was very uncomfortable. I told him that going outside into the noises of the city was also very uncomfortable and a habitual challenge for me. He commented in English and said, “This kind of thing can make you crazy.” He told me and my boyfriend that I ‘have to be strong’. I told him that I know my situation could make someone crazy. I told him that I know I need to be strong. I told him though, in a friendly tone; appreciative of his even mentioning of these issues. This was the first time any hospital specialist had shown any understanding or even alluded to the difficulties I was facing with the everyday. He asked me about my work. I told him I was not currently at work due to my hearing loss. He asked me why. I told him that I was a teacher and that I worked with very young children. I explained the difficulties I had when I tried to return immediately to the classroom, when I first lost my hearing. I asked him whether he thought I would be able to go back to my teaching job. He said he thought I could try. He told me that everything will take time. I needed to adjust. He said that I am still relatively in the early stages of learning how to live with unilateral hearing. He stressed the importance of trying to return to my normal life and routine. When I told him how young the children were that I teach, he added, “It will be very difficult for you though.”
Then the new specialist widened the scope of his investigations. He asked questions about my kidney. I only have one kidney on my right side. He told me that hearing problems and kidney issues can be directly related, as the kidneys regulate the fluid in the body. My hearing loss was possibly an issue with the fluid in my inner ear. Often people with fluid problems in their ears are given diuretics to force the kidneys to excrete more salt in the urine. He was keen to try this measure, as the diuretics could possibly help with my ear pressure. However, he wanted to check first that it was safe to prescribe me diuretics. So he made an appointment for me to have a consultation with a nephrologist (kidney specialist).
He also asked about my jaw. Oh my goodness, I couldn’t believe it! From the very first moment I entered the hospital, at the start of my story, I had been asking the hospital doctors if the problems I have with my jaw could be contributing to the problem in my ear. I had been constantly told that there was ‘probably’ not a connection. This time I hadn’t even mentioned my jaw. The new specialist had asked me the question! He said that my jaw problems could also be a cause of pressure in my head and my ear, and hence could be making my condition worse. So he made an appointment for me to see a maxillofacial doctor (specialist of the head, neck, face and jaw).
He suggested I go to a private audiologist to discuss hearing aid options and ways of helping with my discomfort. He said that there were four options that could be worth trying:
- Wear a normal hearing aid in my deaf ear to try and amplify the sound to a level that might help to give me some hearing. It probably wouldn’t be a useful level of hearing, but it might help with the feeling of disorientation, tinnitus and pressure in my ear.
- If the first option didn’t work, then I could try a Contralateral Routing Of Signals (CROS) hearing aid. This type of hearing aid would take the sound from the deaf ear and transmit it to the ear with better hearing. This could help me hear better in background noise.
- If the CROS hearing aid didn’t work, then there was an aid called a Bone Anchored Hearing Aid (BAHA). Having a BAHA would involve an operation where they attach a hearing aid on to a bone near the ear and it would pick up sound vibrations – this would obviously be a more invasive measure.
- There was also a device that could ‘mask’ tinnitus sounds in my deaf ear. This would play sound, or noises, or music, into the bad ear. Although I wouldn’t be able to hear the sounds, it could help with my tinnitus.
It was so refreshing to speak with someone who was curious about the other issues affecting my ear, and who seemed to genuinely want to help. Maybe this is the same treatment I would have received from any of the other ENT specialists at this point in my story; now that immediate treatment had been administered; now that we had waited for six months; and now that acoustic neuroma, stroke, or an autoimmune disease had been discounted. Even so, this specialist had shown a deep understanding of the day-to-day issues I was facing. He knew about and acknowledged that I would be having some difficult days. This comforted me. I wasn’t being weak or over-accentuating my difficulties. What I was going through was hard. It was supposed to be hard. I was dealing with it. I was having good days and difficult days. This was normal. Also, he explained things in so much detail, and had given us suggestions for further actions. I was incredibly grateful to have consulted with him. I now had a new plan with many elements, and I would be seeing him again in a month to discuss any new findings.
This time when leaving the hospital I didn’t cry. I walked out of the hospital with my boyfriend, breathed the fresh air, and was full of positivity.