Lindsay beat me to writing about her first post-op week. Isn’t it remarkable how little doctors tell you about surgery that you’re about to undergo? When I had my tonsils out at age 30, they warned me that having such an invasive procedure at that age would be “pretty painful”. Ha! Understatement supreme.
She’s feeling stronger every day, and we’re rapidly approaching the moment when Processor meets the Implant for the first time. As she said, we’re still waiting to hear that the new processor from Advanced Bionics is approved by the FDA. Frustrating, but hopefully worth the wait.
In the meantime, I thought I might write a little about the expectations for what a cochlear implant might do for Lindsay. She has already gotten a few messages from friends and family asking if she can hear. This is one of her big worries: to have people think that this implant will cure her deafness. She is afraid that people that have known her all of her life will come up and ask, “Can you hear me now?” like a Verizon commercial circa 2002. She doesn’t like to disappoint people.
I know this is a little difficult to understand, it took me a while to get it, but the cochlear implant is not a cure for deafness. It’s not a replacement for the cochlea she was born with, nor does it physically attach to her brain in any way. In fact, the actual implant is completely worthless without an external processor. When she disconnects the processor from the implant (again, with the magic power of MAGNETS!) she’ll always be profoundly deaf (the clinical term, not mine).
The technology gives her an approximation of hearing. While the quality of hearing that these processors produce has advanced dramatically (in the 20 short years that the cochlear implant has been in use), she’ll still be missing many “layers” of sound that people with normal hearing experience. And we won’t know what she’ll actually hear until they switch on her processor. It’s important, for her and for people that know her, to think of this technology as a potential improvement to her hearing experience, rather than a cure for being deaf.
There are many blogs that detail various experiences people have had with a CI. They are all interesting, in their own way. To some, it’s a magical device that returns hearing to people that have lost it later in life. To others it’s just a upscale hearing aid. Some people can talk on the phone, and others never learn to. Some start to enjoy music for the first time, ever, and some feel lucky to learn that music is playing almost everywhere you go. Even in grocery stores. (Which, when you really think about it, is kind of strange…)
Lindsay might have one of those overwhelming emotional reactions that some people have, but most likely she’ll just hear a series of “beeps”, at first, as her brain struggles to “re-learn” sound. And that’s another concept that is incredibly hard for someone that has always lived with hearing to understand: Lindsay’s brain, most likely, barely remembers what Sound is. At least, with a full range of auditory frequencies. It has been about 30 years since she could hear enough to not need hearing aids, and at this point without her aids she cannot hear anything naturally. For being implanted, it helps that her hearing loss was somewhat gradual – it increases the chances of her brain remembering sound. But this next year with a CI is going to be a challenging one for her, while she has to process the new sounds she’ll be hearing, through a device that is doing it’s best to replicate sound like a fully-functioning ear would. Again, the processor can’t fully simulate natural hearing. But the doctors think that at the very least it’ll be an improvement over her hearing aids.
Lindsay says that she imagines that hearing with a cochlear implant will most likely be similar to looking at a pointillistic painting. If you take in the whole painting, you get the full picture, but take a step too close and all you can see are a series of unrelated dots. One of the reasons she’s willing to wait for the newest processor is to make sure that she has the very best tool to make sense of every “dot” of sound that will be coming to her.
The irony is that thanks to ever-improving tech, her hearing will get better and better. My ears, however, bombarded by years of high-decibel snare hits and electric guitar chords, will worsen. Ha! So…it’s exciting, and important, at the same time, her getting this cochlear implant. It’s a journey for everyone involved…Lindsay, especially, and me, too, but also in part the people at Advanced Bionics – we’ll both be giving them feedback as to what works and what needs tinkering.
In the meantime, maybe, instead of asking her if she can hear…just talk to her, as you always have. I’m pretty sure she’ll let you know if there’s a difference!