Growing up I was never told much about my hearing loss. Just that I had bone and nerve damage, and that I had mild/moderate loss. I wasn’t told percentages (though I did find it written in one place that I had a 40% loss, a number that means nothing to me) and I wasn’t taught how to read an audiogram.
As a kid I knew my left ear was better than my right. If I can’t hear something, I lean forward with my left ear. If I talk on the phone I put it to my left ear. The mere action of putting a phone to my right ear is so foreign to me. Adjusting to a hearing loss is very natural for a child. This is life and we learn how to adapt. I imagine similar reactions to other disabilities for children.
I later learned that my two ears were not that different. In fact, there was an average of ten decibels between lefty and righty. To put this into perspective: a person needs greater than twenty-decibel loss to be considered having a hearing loss. Yet I always knew that my left ear was better.
When I was eight-years-old I had surgery on my right ear. My right ear had bone damage in the middle ear and was the only part of my ears doctors saw as “fixable.” I was told that after the surgery I might only have to wear one hearing aid. Young me was so excited not to wear a hearing aid, and instantly assumed it would be the left aid to go. When I learned it would be my right aid I was dumfounded. I never truly accepted this. To me, my left ear was better, would always be better. Either I was used to my world as it was, or I knew my future.
They day of my surgery I had two stuffed animals with me: Chip and Dale. I carried them into surgery (I got a piggy-back ride by one of the nice staff). I remember watching my heart rate monitor blipping up and down before falling asleep.
The surgery itself consisted of removing the two smallest bones from my body: the incus and malleus. The malleus was reshaped and put back in. The incus was put in an eye drop container with fluid in it so I could have it. Below is a picture of what a normal ear looks like. My malleus is now straight to the stapes, and my ear has confused an eager nurse (or two) looking in my ear for signs of infection.
After surgery my ear was bandaged up, and so was Chip and Dale’s for solidarity. I was nice to them and let them take their bandages off before mine.
What followed was eight weeks of keeping an eight-year-old still during the end of summer vacation. The first thing I did when I got home from the hospital? Spun around before plopping backwards onto the couch. Couldn’t do that. I also couldn’t do the balance beam at school during the physical education tests. Which, of course, I was asked if I could do. Not knowing fully what I could and couldn’t I said I could. When I got home I asked my mother and she said no. I never told her I had already done it. (Hi Mom, if you’re reading…)
I still mourn my mad skip-stick (dating myself much?) skills I had developed prior to surgery. This skill never quite came back.
The end result of the surgery for the doctors: not much change. To me? Tinnitus. I had a huge increase in tinnitus after the surgery. I mostly noticed it at night and started to think of it as loved ones that had passed checking in on me.
The real result of the surgery for me: a weakened ear that had two more instances causing significant loss to my hearing. And more tinnitus. In case you are wondering, I’m not a tinnitus fan.
As for the incus? I still have it. The liquid ran out many years ago. I actually brought it back to the doctor that was a student during the surgery, and he was surprised I still had it. I’ve since printed out a picture of the middle ear and glued it on where it’s supposed to be. A conversation piece for my living room.
I have no plans to ever have surgery again on my ears. The reason has nothing to do with this experience. In many ways I’m happy I had this surgery. It has taught me a lot about hearing and hearing loss and given me a unique perspective. The reason I won’t have surgery is because I don’t want to be fixed. Plain and simple. My hearing loss is my identity. Inconvenient at times? Sure. But it has also given me so much: friends, education, job, culture. Sometimes life is better walking down the path less traveled.
A year after this surgery I lost a good chunk of my hearing in my right ear. More on that another day.