OCTOBER 2006 – NO. 9
If deafness is a kind of death, hearing again is a kind of rebirth.
I'm impatient. It hasn't been a good morning. I'm on a business trip and have just arrived in Reno, where I'm supposed to interview people at Tahoe for a study. But the car rental at the airport won't take my debit card. I spend half an hour canvassing the other outlets, no luck. Finally a man at one counter kindly names a competitor and points me to a courtesy phone.
"Dial 133. They usually have cars and their rates are ok."
I pick up the phone. I can hear it fine with my hearing aids, even amid the ruckus of the baggage claim. Yes, they have cars available. The voice directs me to the shuttle bus outside the airport.
It's the last telephone call I will ever make with my natural ears.
Paperwork signed, I wait for my car. I fidget. I might as well have driven here instead of flying. And then —
That's odd. The traffic sounds fuzzy all of a sudden. Instead of their usual decisive vrump, the cars have started making a whispery sound as they go by, as if plowing through shredded paper. And they sound a hundred yards away, even though I'm right by the road.
It sounds like my left hearing aid's battery is going. Even though I'm wearing two hearing aids, only the left ear really counts. The right ear is so poor that it can hear only vague rumbles. My left ear is my conversation ear, my telephone ear, my radio ear.
I switch batteries in a practiced little pas de deux of the hands: left battery into the right aid, right battery into the left. That doesn't make any difference. I guess they're both going. I pull out a battery pack from my suitcase, do a second change-out, and wait for the familiar rush of clean, loud sound. But it doesn't happen.
I can't have two broken hearing aids at once. It's as absurd as two tires blowing out at the same time. As I get in the car I'm breathing shallowly, and it's not because of the altitude. I roll the car window down, fiddle with my left hearing aid's volume control, and wait for my ears to miraculously clear. All the way up tot Tahoe, I'm monitoring on all frequencies, and — this doesn't sound right.
Gotta be the batteries. It's just a pack of bad batteries. At the hotel I check in, then go to the Long's drugstore and buy three sets of 675's. It costs me $15.37. Right there at the checkout counter, I rip the batteries out of their plastic case and put them in.
That doesn't help either.
In the car I spread both hearing aids out on the passenger seat and methodically try every possible combination of rubes, batteries, and earmolds. Nothing works: the day is like a coin that always comes up tails.
"It's got to be earwax," I say to myself out loud, looking out the windshield at the big red-and-white logo of the store.
I've got to get someone to check my left ear for earwax. Maybe the clerk at the hotel? She had proved to be a lissome woman with blond hair layered over black, whose full lips pouted as her hands explored a keyboard I couldn't see. Maybe she would also take me into her arms and tell me that everything would be alright. Now that would be customer service.
I've never had earwax trouble in my life. But I've also never had two hearing aids fail on me at once, either.
Emergency room. Now.
The ER is quiet, so while waiting for the doctor I conduct an impromptu interview with the nurse. The study is on the region's social problems, and I might as well start collecting data. The nurse is a fount of information. But as she talks, a chilly realization takes hold of me.
"Nancy," I say. "Are you talking about as loudly as you were when I first came in?"
"Yes, I think so."
"But I'm not hearing you as well as when I came in. Before, I could mostly hear your voice. Now I'm only getting little bits of it."
I'm having to lip-read her more and more. With perceptible speed, the world is becoming softer and softer. Every half-hour, I am hearing less than I was in the half-hour before. It's like being an astronaut in the movie Apollo 13 watching the oxygen tank's gauge inexorably slide down to zero.
Reflexively, I think to myself: It's the battery.
Oh no it isn't. I have not only just lost part of my hearing, I am losing all of it. Minute by minute. I am going completely deaf, right here, right now, while sitting on this table talking to this nurse and scribbling notes.
The nurse goes off to see if she can find the physician just a little bit sooner. In a few minutes he appears, listens grave-faced to my story, then looks carefully in my ears.
"Your ears both look the same," he tells me after I put my hearing aids back in. There's no fluid behind the eardrums. No redness or swelling."
I can barely hear him, even though I've twisted the volume wheels on both my aids up to "max." I usually set the volume at three. Now it's at five, the top number on the dial. I need it to be at six. Six is my world of a few hours ago, the place where footsteps and birds and telephones live. If I could just get it to six.
"I'm also feeling a little dizzy," I say cautiously, knowing the implications but trying not to think about them. The inner ears also control the sense of balance. I feel lightheaded, off-kilter, ethereal, as if I had just downed a shot of vodka. When I'd gotten off the exam bench to greet the doctor I had first looked down at the floor to check how far away it was. On the fly, I'm reorganizing the way I deal with my visual field. I'm finding that if I turn to look at something too quickly, my head swims. To stop that from happening, I've started squinting and holding my eyes steady as I turn my head.
The doctor goes off to call a specialist. I peer around the curtain to watch him at the nurses' station down the hall. The phone's spiral cord skitters over the counter as he paces back and forth.
He comes back, speaking slowly and carefully so I can read his lips. "It could be a virus in the inner ear. I want to prescribe you steroids and antivirals. They treat swelling causes by viruses like herpes — "
I'm unraveling his words one at a time, and this creates a kind of myopia of the soul. The words are roaming around in my brain and not slotting in anywhere.
"Herpes? I don't have herpes."
"It's not that. It's an antiviral."
Steroids. Antivirals. Vertigo. It is sinking into me that this is not earwax, this is not an equipment problem, this is not a minor health scare. I am in deep trouble. My mission is aborted. My life has changed forever. Six is lost, unreachable, in a place beyond where the volume wheel stops. Whip right around Tahoe, take the fastest trajectory back home.
The day is July 7, 2001. I'm 36 years old. I've just finished my Ph.D. After a decade of grad school, I'm learning what it's like to have a real job and the beginning of a career. I'm starting to meet people. I'm beginning to have a life.
I have always been hard of hearing. That's not the same thing as being deaf. To be hard of hearing is to have partial hearing, which my hearing aids remedied by amplifying sound. They hurt, itched, and whistled, yet they enable me to take my place in a hearing world. I went to school with people who heard normally. I could use the telephone and understand the radio. No one ever taught me sign language. I often stumbled; I had to ask for repeats; I constantly missed jokes and struggled at parties; but I got by, a reasonably successful child of a lesser god.
I've always been hard of hearing. I can't do deaf. 
Eight hours later I return to the car rental office only to find it closed and deserted. A sign directs me to deposit the key and call for a courtesy cab. A yellow arrow points helpfully to the location of the phone. I go and stare at it, feeling like Snoopy in a world filled with signs saying "No Dogs Allowed." The lot is vacant, not a human being in sight. What do I do?
Perhaps I have just enough hearing left to hear a "yes." I pick up the phone and dial.
"Mmmm mmm mmbpm bbmm verumf hmm bmm, berum hmmm hmm-hmmm grmmm."
"Hi, I'm at the Enterprise Rent-a-car lot and I need a ride to the airport. The sign says to call. Can you send a cab?"
"Erumm vrmm nerpmm mmm mmbpm ermm bmmm arimm, mmmbpmmm bmm hmm ermmm — "
"I'm sorry, I'm deaf and I can't hear you. Could you just say yes or no? Just say whether you can send a cab. Just one word, please. I'm at the Enterprise Rent-a-car near the Reno airport, on" — I look around desperately, my ears ringing like chimes as my head swivels — "Mill Road."
"Ssssss burumm bmm pmmb erumm bmm pmm arum emm er berumm bmm pmm bmm erumm burumm."
Human beings are not binary creatures. You can ask as clearly as possible for a single syllable, yes or no, 1 or 0, but the instinctual apparatus of social communication is not easily turned off. Even audiologists will blather on at me while they are holding my hearing aids in their own hands, and I have to smile tolerantly and hold up my hand to stop them. To people who hear normally, complete deafness seems to be inconceivable. Complete blindness can be simulated easily by closing one's eyes, but even the best earplugs cannot fully shut out the world. The ears are always on, always connected. To talk is to be heard.
But I have gotten just enough of the sibilant, the ssss in yes, to get the message. "Okay, I hear you saying yes, thank you. I'll wait for the cab."
I hang up, paying that all the phonic baggage trailing that one syllable was not yes, but it will take an hour or yes, but you have to call this other number, or yes, we will send a cab right away, sir, if you would just say again where you are.
I stand there and wait, clutching the tow handle of my suitcase as the sun pivots and falls, as appalled by the enormity of the parking lot as a castaway who has just watched his last message in a bottle drift out of sight.
In the maze of doctors' visits that take place in the next few weeks, a phrase that comes up over and over again is cochlear implant. When people go deaf, it is usually because something is wrong with a snail-shaped organ called the cochlea, which lives behind the eardrum, about an inch and a half inside the skull. (The word cochlea comes from the Latin word for "snail.") The entire function of the rest of the ear — the ear canal, the eardrum, the three little bones of the middle ear — is just to get sound to the cochlea. The ear canal funnels sound toward the eardrum, which vibrates. Three little bones transmit the eardrum's vibration to the base of the cochlea (that is, the big end of its spiral.) Ripples travel through the fluid inside the cochlea from its base to the apex. As they go, they perturb 15,000 cell-sized hairs lining its inside. Seen at magnification, those hairs look like a field of grass, and in fact they behave like one, literally rustling in response to sound waves just as blades of grass undulate to the wind's touch. Each hair is connected to a nerve ending, which sends signals to the brain when the hair is moved by sound.
If all of the hairs are physically damaged — and that appears to be what has just happened to me — the nerves can no longer be stimulated, and profound deafness sets in. But the nerves themselves are usually still intact, and can be triggered with implanted electrodes under computer control. That is what a cochlear implant does.
Becky Highlander, my new audiologist, explains to me how it works. She's a slender blond woman with a direct gaze and a deadpan sense of humor. Lip-reading her is not so hard right now, because I've been all over the web researching the device and already have the big picture. Holding up one of the implants, she tells me that the process would start with sound going into the microphone at the headpiece. The headpiece would stick to my head, held there by a magnet inside the implant. The microphone would convert sound into electrical current and send it down a wire running under my shirt to a waist-worn computer (or processor) on my belt. The processor would analyze the sound, ultimately yielding a stream of bits (1s and 0s). It would send those bits back up the wire to the headpiece, which would then transmit them by radio through my skin to the computer chips in the implant.
Those chips would send signals down a wire going to my cochlea through a tunnel drilled through an inch and a half of bone. A string of 16 electrodes coiled up inside my cochlea would strobe on and off in rapid sequence to trigger my auditory nerves. If all went well, my brain would learn to interpret the stimulation as sound.
Getting the implant would make me, in the most literal sense, a cyborg. The word is shorthand for cybernetic organism, a term coined by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in 1960 and defined by WordNet as "a human being whose body has been taken over in whole or in part by electromechanical devices." The word cybernetic comes form the Greek kubernetes, meaning "pilot" or "steersman." A thermostat is a simple cybernetic device, turning on the heat when temperatures get low and turning it off when they get high. It monitors the world and exerts control on it. It makes decisions.
The cybernetic organism: me and my steersman, fused together.
But it's not the prospect of surgery that upsets me. What upsets me, considerably, is what's inside the implant. Becky hands me one with its ceramic casing removed. I cradle it in my palm, surprised by its solidness and heft. It's a circuit board, plain and simple. With computer chips. There are clearing hundreds of thousands of transistors in the thing.
It really is a computer. It's cold, angular, and digital, yet it's going to be embedded in my flesh, which is warm, squishy, and wet — how is that even possible? How can a joining like that not obscurely but permanently hurt, the body and brain outraged by the alien language of 0 and 1?
"Sleep on it," Becky says, kindly.
I do, and I dream that I am walking over a dimly lit landscape of tall grass, my body floating several inches into the air with each step as if I am on the moon. I trip and fall, and my head strikes the ground. A computer chip hiding in the scrub senses its opportunity and lances into my head like a bullet. I get up, hand clutching my skull where it entered, and I am dazed and uncertain: what have I just become?
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