The First Step

I burst into this world healthy, pink, and insanely adorable, only to contract a staph infection in the hospital where I was born. The medicine the doctor used to save my life destroyed the nerves in my cochlea, resulting in severe-to-profound deafness in both ears.

For those of you unfamiliar with audiology terms, there are different degrees of hearing loss: there’s normal (best), slight, mild, moderate, moderately severe, severe, and profound (worst). I’m severely deaf with certain sounds and profoundly deaf with others. So, basically, I totally blow at hearing. If there were such a thing as hearing contests, and I for some reason entered one, I’d walk away with a shame-soaked participation ribbon peeking out from my back jeans pocket.

But–I don’t give a crap about winning hearing contests. (After all, there are plenty of other hypothetical contests I’d kick ass in…. parentheses contests, for starters.) I’ve done the best I could with what I’ve had. Thanks to my parents, who sent me to a school that employed a fabulous system called Cued Speech, I was able to become quite adept at reading lips. That, along with a positive attitude, helped me get by in the hearing world. It’s not that I rejected the deaf world. I just was never around it much, mainly because of the choices my parents made for me. The hearing world was, and still is, all I’ve really known.

When I was about twelve years old, I was told by an audiologist that I’d be a good candidate for a cochlear implant and had I ever considered getting one? Um, you mean shave my hair and wear a magnet on my head? I’m about to start the seventh freaking grade–I don’t think so! ::snaps gum::

Seven years later, after I began college, another audiologist told me the same thing. No longer bogged down by teenage insecurities, I briefly considered it, but ultimately felt too overwhelmed at the prospect. I was dealing with college and the untimely death of my mother. The thought of having invasive surgery at that point in my life, not to mention the amount of therapy and hard work afterward, sounded downright terrifying. Plus I had it in my head that there’d be a cure (stem cell nerve regeneration) any day. Having a cochlear implant would mean destroying my cochlea—making any cure moot.

At the age of 26, when I first started dating my husband Matt (who is hearing), he asked me if I had ever considered an implant. I shrugged –not really. When he pressed, he quickly realized I knew next to nothing about cochlear implant technology. He knew more about it than I did after reading about it for a few days and couldn’t understand why I had never researched it. I hedged his questions with vague responses. He quickly dropped the subject, after sensing my discomfort. He didn’t want me to feel like he needed for me to “change.” He loved me the way I was.

I didn’t research cochlear implants after that conversation, despite secretly being curious. I’m not sure why. I think a part of me was scared. Scared of the surgery, scared of it not working, scared of getting an implant and finding out shortly after that there was a cure on the horizon, scared of having a magnet on my head, scared of being too old. I felt a little stubborn, too. Why did I need to hear better? Wasn’t I already doing a good job of acclimating to the hearing world?

When I was 29, I met with a new audiologist to upgrade my hearing aids. Like the previous audiologists, she told me I’d Be A Good Candidate For A Cochlear Implant. This time was different. I didn’t shrug it off. See, she was born deaf, like me, and had gotten a cochlear implant in her early thirties. And what’s more, she loved it and said it was one of the best decisions she ever made. I found her story so inspiring. This conversation planted a seed in my head that slowly sprouted over the next couple years.

A few months ago, shortly after my 32nd birthday, I met with her again for a hearing aid repair. I asked her a few questions about her implant and admitted that I had been thinking about getting one. She nodded approvingly and gave me the email address of a cochlear implant audiologist from Northwestern Hospital. I went home and stared at the email address for a long time. The first step. Was I ready to take it?

I was.

And now here I am, my head throbbing, my hair matted with blood, my eyes glazed over, my stomach in knots from vomiting repeatedly, my face bruised and puffy, my throat bloody from the tubes shoved down my throat during anesthesia—recovering from the cochlear implant surgery I underwent yesterday morning. And I’m smiling.


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