The following Wednesday I spent the morning with an elderly cousin in his cardiologist’s office, and because dangerously accelerated heart rate was discovered, we spent the afternoon in pre-admission testing at the hospital in Tuscaloosa. That night I came down with a severe sore throat, on the left side, the kind that it is hard to tell whether the pain is actually in the throat or in the Eustachian tube. I wondered, and I think the first doctor I saw wondered, if perchance I had picked up a germ in those medical facilities. I sucked down lots of tussin: that seemed to help. As did all the hot tea with lemon and honey I consumed the next few days. Good bit of coughing, especially at night.
Late afternoon the following Tuesday, I was struck by sudden and severe earache in that left ear. Back in the 1970s something similar had happened at night in my apartment in New York, and before I could get to medical help there was an eruption accompanied by lots of blood and pus. Hoping to avoid such this time, I hopped in my car and drove to the emergency room at the hospital in Greensboro.
Tests for strep throat and flu seemed to be negative, and the physician prescribed a course of antibiotics, 500 mg. of Amoxillin twice a day. They gave me my first dose at the hospital and sent me directly home instead of to the pharmacy because of the threat of tornadoes. Within a half hour after that first pill, the pain began to diminish. (The sky looked awful but tornadoes did not materialize.)
I was supposed to see my dentist at 10 the next morning to have a permanent crown put in to replace my temporary. But when I woke up, I realized that I was suffering an attack of vertigo, no doubt because of the liquid in my ear. I did manage to drive back to Greensboro to get the prescription filled, and that convinced me that I could not manage a drive to my dentist in Tuscaloosa. I called, explained, rescheduled. The vertigo went away that afternoon, with only a couple of additional much less discombobulating occurrences.
On Tuesday May 6 I completed the course of antibiotics. Infection gone. Deafness continued, if anything, more so. How long should I wait before seeking expert help? The next day I decided sooner was better than later. I called Tuscaloosa Ear, Nose, and Throat, and luckily they had an opening the next morning at 9. Lots of paperwork, detailed audiology exam, and the doctor did confirm fluids blocked in both ears. Steroid shot in right butt, 3 different nasals sprays, see him again in 2 weeks. If no relief, there was the option of sucking the fluid out with a needle.
Here it is a week later. No dramatic change for the better, although I remain hopeful. I am glad there is another option, Just In Case!
This whole experience has brought back so many memories and called up a lot of reflection.
My maternal grandmother, as far back as I can remember, had difficulty hearing. This increased over time, and when she died at the age of 96 she was pretty much totally deaf. For most of the time that I knew her, she wore a hearing aid. It did help. But when it would go bad, as they often did back then, she and whichever one of her daughters she could locate, usually my mother, would be in a major panic state trying to get her to the hearing aid place in Tuscaloosa ASAP.
I’m not sure she ever saw a physician specializing in hearing problems. In those days, if you were deaf you needed a hearing aid, so you’d go to the hearing aid place and be fitted with whatever that one was selling.
She had 7 children, and 3 of them also suffered major degrees of hearing loss.
I learned a lot about deafness from my grandmother and the three children with problems. Hearing problems create a great deal of frustration in the persons suffering from same and also in the persons around them. Large Sunday dinners after church were the rule at Grandmama’s house when I was growing up, and it seemed to me that the default manner of speaking was to scream at one another as loudly as you could. And screaming loudly made you angry. And getting angry made you scream louder.
Gradually I learned that when I would visit my grandmother alone or with one or two others, she seemed to hear better. Less ambient noise. Less confusion. Easier to focus. I also discovered that it was a mistake to get in her face and scream out a basic question in one simple sentence that had no context. Much better to let her lead the conversation, start talking about less important matters first, and gradually to the degree possible lead her to a topic. Often she herself would get around to the more important topic. Once you and she were settled on a subject of conversation, she seemed to hear what was said about that subject so much better. And if you were in the same conversational room, you didn’t have to scream so loud to be heard.
Her 3 children with hearing problems were Martha Julia (born 1914), Louise (1919), and Fletcher (1923). I remember hearing family tales when I was a child about Aunt Lizzie (Grandpapa’s sister) coming all the way up from Clarke County by train to help take care of the family when they were all suffering from the flu. I have wondered if some of these hearing problems might be traced back to infection and damage done then.
I think Aunt Martha Julia was severely deaf as far back as I can remember. She was always the quiet one. In a group she was likely to be the one looking down at her hands in her lap. Reserved, looking inward. Like her mother, she was better in one-on-one conversation rather than in a larger group. She had a family reputation for “telling fibs.” If you got angry enough (never a problem in this family), you might change that to “telling lies.”
I have a theory about that. I don’t think Martha Julia told lies. I think that because so many auditory signals passed her by, she had an incomplete picture of the world. She would fill in the blanks in her mind as best she could, making up her own private world. What she told was from this private world and often did not match up well with actuality. Her fantasy was her truth. And she made up her fantasy world to be prettier and nicer than the actual world.
A case in point. In the middle 1990s my Uncle Fletcher committed suicide. Aunt Louise discovered his body on the ground outside his back door. In addition to myself, there were policemen, the preacher, the coroner, the undertaker, and various family friends and curiosity-seekers stomping about the area. No doubt and no secret about what had happened. When I was growing up there had been other suicides on the May side of my family involving cover-ups and tidying up the scenes, such matters usually involving my father. Of course word leaked. Word does, you know. And I was determined to go with the truth on this one. When I managed to locate Martha Julia, I explained, I thought carefully, what had happened. She quickly grasped that Uncle Fletcher was dead. But the rest?
The next morning I received a call from a mutual friend, one who had come by the night before while Fletcher’s body was still on the ground. “Didn’t Fletcher shoot himself?” Yes. “Well, Martha Julia is calling everybody and telling them that he had a heart attack!” So back to her house and I went through the whole thing again. I can still remember the blankness in her stare when I got to the facts of the suicide. I’m still not sure that she “heard” that part. In her world, it was nicer if Fletcher had a heart attack. I wonder if that always remained her “truth.”
Martha Julia did not like to be thought deaf. She did not like to be “different,” “weird.” That wasn’t nice. She became a master at pretending that she heard and understood. Her daughter living a couple of hundred miles away, in her later years I often was involved in driving my aunt to hearing and other medical appointments. I might say, “Pick you up at 8.” She’d say, “Uhnn Hnn!” I’d say, “Did you hear what I said?” She’s say, “Uhnn Hnn!” I’d say, “Now what time will you be ready?” And she’d say, “Uhnn Hnn!” At times I would try to get her to repeat what I had told her, and she would refuse. My attempt would make her visibly angry.
After she moved away to live next door to her daughter, she was taken to an audiologist for evaluation to determine whether any change in her hearing aid might help her. My cousin reported that she was able to convince the audiologist that she could hear just fine, when she could not hear a thing! She had learned how to respond during tests to give the impression that she could hear. (I thought of her when having my own hearing test a week ago: I did see how by noticing tiny movements outside the enclosed cubicle and by getting a sense of expected pattern of response, I probably could have altered the results of my test. But I wanted to know what the true situation was, not try to pretend all was okay.) [NOTE: Martha Julia's daughter has replied to this post with an interesting correction/amplification. See her comment below, the first one.]
When I was in my teens, Martha Julia lost the vision in one of her eyes. Over the years family lore decided that “Martha Julia sees more out of that one eye than most folks do out of two!” It was remarkable. She would enter a room and immediately spot anything new that had been added or anything that had been removed or shifted. My sense is that with her hearing so poor, she had trained her eye to pick up more information.
In my childhood I thought Martha Julia was the most beautiful of the 3 girls. A dark, quiet, almost tragic beauty. In later years I thought of a certain type of 1930s movie star, even Garbo in a way. Her younger sister, Aunt Louise, was the pretty one, the cute one. In retrospect Louise reminds me of the WW2 pin-up on a serviceman’s locker.
Louise’s deafness seemed to start later in life and progress more slowly. I think she got hearing aids early on, but I also believe that she often did not wear them. She too did not want people to realize that she was deaf. Ah, vanity!
When I moved back to Alabama in 1989, she could still hear reasonably well in one-on-one situations. Already she was using closed-captions on her TV (watching mostly reality cop shows that made her extremely nervous and scared). She went to church regularly, but I believe she rarely understood what was being said. I noticed that she rarely sang the hymns, and I suspect that was related to her increasing deafness. She did a lot of “church work,” and her great pleasure was to work in the kitchen whenever there was a church event like a funeral for which the ladies of the church would prepare food. In the kitchen she did not have to interact with other people much, and when she did with other helpers, it was in a structured environment where she could better figure out what was being said.
In her latter years she began to exhibit signs of dementia. I noticed that she would have difficulty with calling up nouns, the names of things. Then gradually she began to lose her verbs. I have wondered to what extent her deafness contributed to her dementia and to its manifestations. When she could no longer live along, her son return to live with her until her death. I believe in her last months she spoke rarely, if at all.
Uncle Fletcher was the baby of the 7, only 16 years older than I. He lost his hearing as an infant. He was an unhappy child, and I believe he was often in pain. He profited little from schooling: he was considered “retarded” because of his difficulty in hearing and responding to the outside world. He was a handsome boy, and he grew into and remained a handsome man. Lean, angular. He always seemed angry, frighteningly so. I remember being scared of him when I was a child. Later my fear was tempered by growing affection and sympathy.
Fletcher was not stupid. He did manage to learn to read. He acquired lots of comic books, and from time to time he would pass along to me ones he no longer wished to keep. I suspect the pictures in the comics helped him learn more words. As a young man his favorite reading was Popular Mechanics. He understood the words and the diagrams, and he would build objects featured in the magazine. I am convinced that if he could have had an education proper to his needs, he would have been an accomplished man.
Probably in the late 1940s or early 1950s he had a procedure called fenestration performed to help his hearing. I seem to recall a second one: perhaps for the other ear? Aunt Martha Julia I believe also had this procedure. The procedure is no longer performed. It involved actually removing part of the bone, the mastoid, I believe. In later years Fletcher had incredibly severe headaches for which no cause seemed to be found. I have wondered if possibly the old procedure may have had something to do with those headaches. I am convinced that the headaches, which seemed to be growing in frequency, had something to do with his deciding upon suicide.
Oddly, all 3 of the deaf siblings ended up living in Greensboro, Fletcher in the old family house across a field from Aunt Louise’s newer one, Martha Julia in a house on East Main. Of course, as you might expect, they did not communicate well. In part, the deafness. In part, perhaps, the physical and mental and psychological effects of the deafness.
The deafness of a mother and 3 of her 7 children seems to have been the crucial circumstance in the history of my mother’s family, certainly for these 4 people and, I think for the other siblings as well. Nowadays, I believe, there would have been some sort of intervention to help them, particularly in the case of Uncle Fletcher in his formative school days. But then, in the 1920s, there was little to help a working-class family with problems like this, and my grandfather, King David (after the famous one from the Old Testament), was merely a farmer and well-digger, later well-driller. He also became somewhat of an alcoholic, a binge drinker, which no doubt contributed to his cirrhosis. I wonder if his end too might in some way have related to the deafness of his wife and 3 of this children.
My own deafness seems to be temporary. My doctor believes that my hearing can be restored to what it recently was (which was reasonably good). If the present treatment does not succeed, the next step will be to suction the trapped fluids out. I’m pleased that there is a further step.
Been there, done that! Back in the 1960s in New York I developed a similar deafness. I got an appointment with an ear doctor on East 60th Street off Park Avenue. He asked questions, looked, prodded, and then he said, “I’m going to call in Mr. Smith for assistance.”
Mr. Smith was a small, dapper, well-built man of middle years wearing a green plaid tweed jacket and a tie with a lot of red in it. He looked like a cross between a leprechaun and a bantam-weight boxer. (I think he had been the latter, but I’m not sure about the former.) He didn’t look at all like a medical man who might be brought in for assistance or consultation.
The doctor gave a sign, and Mr. Smith threw one arm about my neck and grabbed my head with the other hand and held on tight. The doctor plunged a needle into my ear and I heard this loud sucking sound inside my head and then a pop! and suddenly I could hear again. Yes, I must confess it startled me severely, or you might say scared the hell out of me. No warning of what was going to happen. No consent forms. Just sudden and direct action. But I could hear again, and I forgave all.
One thing I can say about Mr. Smith: he sure could hold you tight! Good thing he did, too.
That was the worst experience I had with temporary (we hope) deafness before this present condition. There were a couple of times later when I experience something similar but much less bothersome, and matters tended to clear up naturally in a day or so. I’m still hoping this will. If it does not, and if my doctor wishes to proceed with suction on my next visit, my big question is whether the procedure will require that I have a driver.
How is this present condition affecting me at the moment?
Well, of course I don’t like not being able to hear conversations as well. Still, I’m pretty content with my own company, and I can find things to amuse myself at home without other people around. But last night I had to go to an OLLI meeting (I’m the one who has been designated to take the bottled water and canned drinks to each meeting), and not being able to understand anything the speaker said for over an hour was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life. I won’t be doing that again!
I can’t hear a phone ring unless I am within a few feet of it. If I press the receiver hard against my right ear (historically my worst ear), I can barely make out enough to carry on a conversation. I can’t hear the beep of my answering machine and have to rely on the visual. I can’t hear the ticking of the kitchen timer, and I can only hear the ding if I am close by. I can’t hear the sound of my air conditioners and electric fans.
I can’t hear my cat purr. I didn’t realize how much hearing her purr meant to me.
I can’t hear water running in the sink. More than once I have left it running because I couldn’t hear it.
When crossing the highway in front of my house to get my mail at the post office, I can’t hear cars coming. I can barely hear my car engine when I am driving, and rarely can I hear a car horn blow. Walking in the house I can’t hear my feet against the floor.
When watching a movie on TV I have to turn on the DirecTV subtitles (much better, I think, than the closed captioning). At the moment I have to avoid big action films because you lose so much if you don’t have the big noise. Foreign films are the best, for the subtitles seem more “normal” in that context. Music I tend to avoid totally.
Certainly I can see how deafness can lead to a retreat from life.
My examples may seem small and inconsequential, but hey, it’s the little things in life! I am fortunate that it is likely that all or at least most of my hearing will revert to what is normal for me. I am fortunate that I have options beyond the present course of treatment.
But I must say: this experience has really made me think about my family. It has really made me think about my life. It has really made me think about my future. And it has really deepened my appreciation and sympathy for others whose hearing is impaired.