Side profile of a woman having a cochlear implant fitted.

My Cochlear Implant Story, Part 1: Could I Be a Candidate?

Yet again, I’m wandering around a Spanish hospital with no idea where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing.

It all started around 5-months ago when I had a routine check-up with my ENT. I did a hearing test and, no surprise, he told me my right ear was fine, but my left ear “doesn’t work.” (He was Spanish and was speaking in English, which was wonderful, but sometimes subtleness is lost in translation.) I asked, as always and without agenda, whether there was anything he could do to aid my deaf ear. “A hearing aid won’t work,” he says—my hearing loss is too profound for a hearing aid to be helpful. He paused. His gaze drifted, and I could see he was thinking about something. Then he questioningly muttered the words, “Cochlear implant?” I jumped on these magic words: “Really?!” For years, I’d been reading about other people’s experiences with cochlear implants for single-sided deafness in the US and places in Europe, such as Germany. It was a device I had inquired about in my last appointment in Madrid before I moved to the east coast of Spain, around a year before. But at the time, Spain still wasn’t providing cochlear implants for people with single-sided deafness. He continued, “If you go to Valencia, you can see if you can get one.” He said it so matter-of-factly. Oh wow! This was the opportunity I had been waiting for. “Yes!” I almost screamed with bubbling excitement. 

One month later, it’s January 2023, and I travel to Valencia which first involves a 30-minute car drive—my partner dropped me off at a nearby train station, and then I got a train for an hour to Valencia. It’s then a 40-minute walk to the hospital. I met with an ENT who spoke only Spanish but had wonderful deaf awareness. Every time she spoke, she lowered her mask and enunciated clearly and slowly. I understood everything. The appointment took only about 10 minutes. I told her my story, showed her my medical history and audiogram, and she checked both of my ears. She told me that I would need to do some tests to see if I was a suitable candidate for the implant. She made me an appointment for 4-months time for the tests and another appointment a few days after that to meet with her again to discuss the test results.

It’s now May 2023, and I’m wandering around a hospital floor completely baffled. Where is the sign for the Audiology testing area? I walk past the Oncology waiting area and see a hospital porter. He looks friendly. I hurry over to him, show him my appointment on my phone, and ask him—articulating as clearly as much as possible through my facemask—whereabouts the testing area is. He says something in a friendly tone from behind his mask and walks around a corner. I follow him and he presses the button to call the lift. He tells me to go to floor 3, and then I will be in the correct place. I thank him gratefully. I take the lift and arrive in the correct area. I then show my appointment to the lady on reception. “Yes, you have an appointment here,” she says. Great! Then she mumbles something about going to the end of somewhere, putting my health card in a machine and getting a ticket. It’s already my appointment time, and I’m a little panicked. To the right of me is the exit, so I head to the left and walk for a minute or so before reaching the end of the corridor where, sure enough, stands a ticket machine. Yay for successful hearing and good Spanish! I enter my card, and the machine produces a ticket. Great, back on track! I hurry back to the lady on reception, show her the ticket, and she tells me to sit down and wait. 40-minutes later, the number on my ticket appears on the overhead screen. 

I walk through some double doors to another corridor and find my allocated room number. I knock—not that I will hear if anyone replies, but more out of courtesy. I enter a short corridor lined with rooms with glass windows. A lady says my name. “Yes, that’s me,” I say. I take a breath. I made it! She asks me why I’m there, and I explain that I am scheduled to have some tests for a cochlear implant. I show her a piece of paper with the names of various tests listed and 4 ticked boxes next to the necessary tests for my evaluation.

The first test is the usual pure tone test. It is during this test that my tinnitus makes itself known. I rarely notice my tinnitus, but during hearing tests, it jumps into the foreground and starts whooshing, ringing and beeping in a seeming attempt to mimic the hearing test tones. I’m eager to do my best with my good ear so they get an accurate picture of my hearing capability. There are a few beeps for which I tentatively raise my hand, as I’m not sure whether it is a real sound or my tinnitus masquerading as a sound. When testing my deaf ear, I see from the corner of my eye that the audiologist’s colleague has come to join her. They seem interested in the results. I’m hearing nothing until a sound, presumably from the left (deaf) side, is so loud that it travels through my head, undetected by my deaf ear, and enters my right (hearing) ear. I point to my right ear and they tell me they are going to play the sound of wind in my good ear so my deaf ear can focus on the sounds more easily. This is the usual procedure. I hear a couple of painfully loud tones in my deaf ear, and the test is over. 

The audiologist enters the room and asks, “What happened to your left ear?” I tell her a little about my sudden hearing loss. She asked whether I regained any hearing with steroid treatment, and I tell her I didn’t. She looks sympathetic, though I’ve told this story so many times, it no longer saddens me.

Next, is the bone conduction test. The square oscillator box is placed behind my deaf ear, and they ask me to tell them which ear I hear the tone in by raising the corresponding hand. The oscillator vibrates, and I only raise my right hand during the test. I hear nothing in my left ear, there’s only the feeling of the oscillator vibrating. 

It’s the word recognition test next. The audiologist asks if I’m ok to do it in Spanish. I tell her I’ll try my best! She first tests my hearing ear. I repeat, in my best Spanish, the words I hear. It occurs to me that sometimes I make assumptions about words I already know. Familiar words come easily, whereas there are a couple of words I’m not familiar with, which I pronounce with uncertainty. I’m sure I would achieve a higher score if I did this test in English, as my brain would be making more assumptions about words. An example of this theory is when my partner says something from another room. Just from the tone of his speech, I can often guess what he’s said. Next, they test my deaf ear. I am able to repeat only a couple of painfully loud words. 

Finally, I do an acoustic reflex test. The audiologist puts earplugs in my ears and plays a few loud tones. I feel some pressure in my ear and am told to do nothing. I can certainly do that. I wait a couple of minutes, and the test is over. 

The audiologist congratulates me on my Spanish pronunciation. I tell her that my tinnitus was very loud during the tests, and she says, “The implant can help with that.” She pauses, and adds, “If you get one.”

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