hearing loss / cochlear implant


Can you hear me now?

You can call it selective hearing, being preoccupied or just not interested in listening to somebody when they’re trying to tell you something. In my case, it was also losing my hearing in the frequency range of my wife’s voice. never listenShe would often complain that I never listen to her. She returned one evening from a craft fair or bazaar with a painted block of wood, wrapped with a ribbon, and handed it to me. It had the following inscription:

“My wife says I never listen to her… at least I think that’s what she said.” 

Later I discovered our lack of communication was only partially due to my progressive hearing loss. I say “partially” because I now know I was guilty of not giving her my full attention when she spoke to me. I struggled with my hearing (and listening) until a few years later when I suffered profound loss of hearing in both ears.

Though my total loss of hearing was devastating when it happened, regaining my hearing through the process of receiving a cochlear implant has taught me some very important lessons about the difference between hearing and listening.

Hearing is not the same as listening.

The rehabilitation process of regaining my hearing through the miracle of a cochlear implant was hard work. I would struggle to hear at times, knowing I needed to understand the words being said.

But because I was concentrating so much on hearing the words in a conversation, I found myself lacking in the area of listening to the conversation. My brain was so focused on hearing that I didn’t have time to listen at first. Likewise, if our minds and concentration are focused elsewhere, we’re going to miss most of the conversation.

Using more than just your ears.

Listening is not only hearing what is being said, but what is not being said or only partially being said. There are so many nuances to a conversation that one can’t hear unless they truly engage in listening. Body language, facial expression, verbal and non-verbal messages can only be pick up if one is fully engaged, both hearing and listening.

So now you might be asking yourself “what does this have to do with healthcare?”

Time allotted:  8 minutes per patient.

The New York Times recently published an article referencing a study which confirmed “new doctors are spending less time with patients than ever before.” I’m sure this translates over to many of the physicians who’ve been in practice for a number of years as well. Physicians (and pharmacists for that matter) are being bogged down in paperwork and other tasks not directly associated with patient care.

Pharmacists have been under this pressure for years. Even With OBRA mandating patient counseling on all new prescriptions, most pharmacists find it difficult to  get 30 seconds to counsel a patient at times. And I’m sure that physicians and pharmacists are not the only healthcare professionals who are lacking the time to spend listening to patients.

“The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting…”
~ Fran Lebowitz

So here’s a few tips that would improve the delivery of healthcare from a listening perspective:

  • Stop talking – let your patients tell their story
  • Get ready to listen – remove distractions (including laptops, etc.)
  • Be patient – put them at ease and let them share their concerns
  • Listen for what’s not being said – listen with your eyes as well
  • Be empathetic – try to understand the patient’s point of view

Unless we put forth the effort to prepare ourselves to listen it probably isn’t going to happen.

No time, no time, no time…

One might argue the case of  this new generation of healthcare practitioners being different than past generations due to time constraints. Circumstances may change over time. But the framework for building good relationships with other people hasn’t changed much, if at all, for centuries.

If we want to improve healthcare we must improve the communication and interaction with patients… many who are more informed and engaged in their health and medical conditions than ever before.

So what happened to the sign?

It still sits on our kitchen windowsill, over 15 years later, as a daily reminder to us all.

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After several years of pestering by my wife I gave in and had my hearing checked about 10 years ago.   I ended up getting hearing instruments (aids)  for both ears at that time. After wearing hearing aids for less than 2 years I began having problems with my hearing on the left side.   I thought my hearing aid was on the fritz, occasionally shorting out or something.

My hearing was evaluated by my hearing aid practitioner and it was discovered it wasn’t a faulty hearing aid at all.  It was my left ear that was failing.  I subsequently lost all hearing in my left ear on May 15, 2004 and lost the hearing in my right ear about 2 months later.  I was later told it was sensorineural hearing loss of unknown origin.

After being seen by an ENT/hearing specialist I was set up with an appointment for further evaluation at Oregon Health Sciences University.   This resulted in me being scheduled for cochlear implant surgery on September 2, 2004.    

I persuaded the doctor to activate my cochlear implant about 3 weeks later, two days before my eldest daughter was to be married.  Even though it sounded like a fusion between Mickey Mouse and R2D2, I was able to hear nearly every word at that memorable ceremony after being totally deaf.

Testing after my cochlear implant was activated showed that I had regained 98% speech recognition.   My good speech recognition scores are most likely attributed to only being totally deaf for about 9 weeks.  I guess that I was sort of a ‘poster boy’ in the OHSU Audiology department for awhile.  In less than a month I began to hear normal again.  My wife’s voice began to sound like it used to sound in less than 6 weeks.

It was only a few months later that I became involved with the Cochlear Awareness Network.  I’ve participated in Cochlear outreach activities since that time.  I recently was asked to represent Cochlear Americas at the 2011 Association of Medical Professionals with Hearing Loss conference.   I’ve done a number of presentations over the years at Lion’s and Rotary club meetings, church and civic groups, the School of Occupational Therapy at Pacific University, the Portland Medical Representatives Association and shared my personal story at a continuing education seminar for audiologists.   I just led Team Cochlear at the Walk4Hearing in Portland, Oregon raising money for the Hearing Loss Association of America’s efforts to raise awareness and provide programs and assistance for those suffering from hearing loss.

The challenge of going deaf and receiving my cochlear implant has truly changed my life in a number of ways.  Not only was I able to hear again but I gained a great deal of perspective and maybe even a little wisdom from going through the process.  This has resulted in personal growth in areas that I would not have otherwise experienced.

I now participate as an Ambassador for the Cochlear Awareness Network and believe that having a cochlear implant is a great conversation starter.   I have people ask me about it all the time.  I enjoy sharing my story with others and hope that I can help them learn that there are solutions available to many who are ‘hearing challenged’.