Pink Heart Society regular, Kate Hardy, is talking about the hearing troubles that have made her feel very vulnerable.
I’ve always thought of myself as a really strong person who just gets on with whatever life hands out. (Y’know, if life gives you lemons, then go make lemon cake – that sort of thing. And, yes, I know it’s meant to be lemonade, but this is me. I prefer baking!)
But last week gave me a glimpse of what it might be like to be very old and vulnerable. And it was a truly horrible experience.
The whole thing goes back to my childhood. My parents could call me when I was reading and I wouldn’t hear them – they’d have to come and take the book out of my hands to get my attention. Everyone thought it was just because I was so deep into bookworld (let’s just say my career choice was obvious from the age of three!). Nobody had a clue that there might be a problem.
As a teen, I found myself leaning with one elbow on the desk and my hand cupped behind my ear in class, so I could hear better. (I just assumed my teachers had quiet voices.)
At work, my boss had a word with me: he’d noticed that if he spoke to me when I wasn’t facing him, I ignored him. He thought I might be deaf. So I had a hearing test. ‘Yes, your hearing is poor, but there’s nothing we can do.’ OK. I could live with that.
Doing jury service, I had to ask the court clerk if I could use their headset to amplify sounds because I couldn’t hear the witnesses speak. When the judge poured a glass of water, it sounded like a waterfall. When a barrister turned over a page, it sounded like someone shaking a newspaper very violently. The hard bits of the headset in my ears were really uncomfortable.
If this was what having a hearing aid would be like, then I didn’t want one.
I gave up playing acoustic guitar, because I could only hear if my jaw was resting on the body of the guitar. (Anyone who’s read my book ‘The Children’s Doctor’s Special Proposal’ – yup, that’s where the cello scene comes from!)
And then, when I was PTA chair at my children’s first school, the headmistress had a quiet word with me. She’d noticed I was lipreading and thought that although I handled the business stuff very well, I was missing out on all the fun stuff in between. She said that things had moved on since my last test – she had pupils who needed hearing aids and it made a real difference to their lives – so she persuaded me to go back to the audiology specialist.
Result: I’m officially deaf (caused by a mixture of two childhood accidents and mumps at the age of ten) and the hospital gave me a digital hearing aid. They make moulds of your ears so you can’t feel them when they’re in place. And it was a revelation. I heard birdsong for the first time in years. The music I loved so much and had had to give up sounded different – there were all these little extra bits I’d never noticed before or had forgotten about because I hadn’t heard them for so long. It was a JOY. And I think you only realise how precious something is when you’ve lost it and got it back again.
Four years later, my hearing had dulled again, so I went back for another test. Result: two hearing aids. Brilliant. Everything was loud and unfamiliar for three days, but then my brain filtered out the excess sound and it was fine. I can only use a phone on loudspeaker (so it’s difficult in the city, where it’s noisy) but I can live with that.
Last week: fitting for new aids following another dip in my hearing. Now, the audiology test hadn’t been great – the audiologist came across to me as very young and inexperienced. (As in, if I explain to you that I cannot hear a normal conversation without hearing aids and have to lipread, it’s very stupid of you to take the aids out to do the earmould fitting and then persist in talking to me when I can’t see your face. Because it’s very obviously that I will not be able to pick up what you’re saying. And if it’s your job… um, should you not be aware of this?) When I had the aids fitted on Monday morning, I knew it wasn’t right. It was too quiet. ‘Oh, all hearing aids are different and you’ll get used to it.’ But I can’t hear anything behind me. ‘Well, you’ll just have to accept that there will be some gaps in your hearing.’
Stupidly – because those gaps hadn’t been there half an hour before! – I said I’d give it a go and went home. And that was when I realised the scale of the problem. The car stereo – which I’d had on volume 6 on the way in – had to go up to 10 to hear it at the same volume. (That would’ve hurt before.) I couldn’t use a phone, even on speaker. I picked the kids up from school and I couldn’t hear their voices. So I rang the hospital to see if they could fix me. ‘We can’t see you until June.’ You’ve taken away 50% of my hearing. I can’t function at this level, and you’re going to leave me like this for six weeks? ‘I just book the appointments.’ Can’t I go to hearing aid repairs for them to reprogramme it? ‘No.’ Well, there’s no point in talking to someone who clearly doesn’t want to help you. So I had six weeks of not being able to hear – and basically feeling disabled and vulnerable – to look forward to.
I didn’t want to go anywhere on my own, knowing that I wouldn’t be aware if a car came up behind me in a car park, or if someone was walking behind me in a supermarket (so I might step back and knock into them). I wanted someone with me to keep me safe and warn me if there was a danger I was unaware of because I couldn’t hear it. It made me feel weak and stupid and hopeless and scared. And I hated every second. That isn’t who I am. At all.
I had very little sleep well that night. (LOL. The Fitbit computer record has little clumps of sleep and big gaps.) And, the next morning, I went back to the hospital straight after the school run (braving the car park!), intending to do a sit-in at the department until someone would speak to me and fix what they’d broken.
The receptionist was brilliant (and offered me tissues and a glass of water – yes, I did cry my eyes out because I was tired and vulnerable and scared). She came with me to the waiting area and spoke to the audiologist on my behalf. This new audiologist was wonderful. She listened. She read my notes. She discovered why I couldn’t hear – the one who hadn’t listened to me at the test also hadn’t read my notes properly and hadn’t ticked the box saying that I had conductive deafness. Meaning that I’d been given the wrong programme.
The audiologist wasn’t able to fix me completely – that’ll be next month – but we have a workaround which I can live with. It’s like having two-dimensional hearing (and I notice the gaps in music – harmonies that I know are there are ‘missing’ right now)
But that day of feeling vulnerable and having to rely on other people to keep me safe has stayed with me. It’ll probably end up brewing a book (as I say, make lemon cake), but it threw me way too far out of my comfort zone. And all because someone was too arrogant to listen to me and do her job properly. (Yes, I have made a complaint – I don’t want the first audiologist to lose her job, but I do want her to manager to take this as a learning opportunity to improve her performance for the future. I also mentioned the two people who were fantastic and asked that they would be given an official thank you from their manager on my behalf.)
Have you ever experienced feeling as vulnerable as that? How did you deal with it?
Kate’s latest releases are It Started at a Wedding... from Harlequin Mills & Boon (the follow-up to Plague Squirrels), and Bachelor at Her Bidding, her first book for Tule Publishing.