Rosemary Learns Hearing. Again.

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Girl dancing – Keller Cottage for Blind-Deaf Children, Talladega, Alabama

When Rosemary Pryde was four years old, 63 years ago, she lost her hearing.  No one knows exactly why: maybe the high fever, maybe the medications, maybe genetic – her father and his mother lost their hearing as adults.  She didn’t lose her hearing completely;  she had some residual in both ears.  When she was five, she got a hearing aid and rode her bicycle up and down the driveway, ringing the bell for the pleasure of hearing it.   She learned to lip read.  And it wasn’t all bad: her family’s TV often lost sound and even though the youngest, she was the only one who could lip read I Love Lucy.  But she didn’t understand why everyone went outside at midnight on New Year’s Eve and seemed excited; and she couldn’t learn if her teacher talked while facing the blackboard; and she eventually lost hearing completely in her right ear.  She grew up and made a career in the helping professions — employment counsellor, executive director of a charity, group facilitator – and was good at it: when you lip read, you focus hard on other people.

But her hearing slowly worsened and a hearing aid’s volume can go only so high.  About 30 years ago, she was sitting by a lake with friends, watching the dusk and drinking gin-and-tonics, and somebody said, “Listen to the loons.  What a beautiful sound they make,” and she heard nothing.  With the years, the concentration necessary to follow a conversation had become so tiring, she was going out less.  She stopped going to movies; five years ago, she gave up lunch with her large group of friends and saw them one or two at a time instead.  She arranged for her workshops to be smaller, then noticed that she had trouble even in a group of two or three.  Finally, in the winter of 2011, she was approved for a cochlear implant in her right ear, and in late August, 2012, she had the surgery.  And after that, she had to learn to hear.

Normal hearing is a house that Jack built: a sound wave — which is a physical wave like a water wave but in the air — gets converted by membranes and bones into a mechanical vibration; which hits the fluid in the cochlea and gets converted into fluid vibrations; which in turn vibrate the cochlea’s tiny hair cells which convert the vibration into an electrochemical impulse; which the auditory nerve carries to the brain.  Rosemary’s hair cells were damaged, so the whole house fell apart.  A cochlear implant ignores the middle of the process:  a sound wave hits a receiver and processor worn around the ear and is converted straight to electric impulses by the implanted electrodes and then sent directly to the auditory nerve.

It’s ingenious but it’s not perfect.  An implant has maybe 20 electrodes and delivers a fraction of the sounds – the pitches – that the hair cells do.  So each pitch in effect broadens out and a middle C is a sort of blur that could be heard an octave lower. The brain has to learn to resolve the pitches and fill in the gaps.  She had already learned to hear with her hearing aid but now her brain has to learn to hear what the electrodes are saying.  This is where magic happens.

girlsThe first time Rosemary’s implant is activated, she turns off the hearing aid in her left ear, and hears an angry buzz, then low sounds with pauses – buzz, pause, buzz buzz, pause – then sounds she thinks might be words.  Her audiologist is talking to her, so she lip reads and then thinks she really is hearing words, though her audiologist sounds like Darth Vader, a deep, robotic monotone, with the middles of the words fuzzy and the edges of the words somehow frayed.  Then she hears computer keys clicking and a carrying case being unzipped, but these sounds too are just buzzes that she identifies only when she sees them happening.  When she gets home, her dining room chair creaks – she had no idea it did – and she hears herself loudly crunching toast.  Then within days the computer keys stop buzzing and go click, click, click.

At the end of the second week, she plays Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the piano, and the notes sound all the same, like a regular, static-y beat, not like music at all.  Two weeks later, she tries Twinkle Twinkle Little Star again and this time it sounds like a song – an octave too low, still fuzzy, but a song.  “On to Chopsticks,” she thinks.  A couple weeks later, voices are still sounding like Darth Vader, as does her own and for a while she has to stop singing in church. She goes to her regular doctor and while waiting in the examining room, she hears shoes walking, the paper cover being torn off the examining bed in the next room, a door closing, the snap of latex gloves, all sounds so loud they were distracting.  Her brain was still learning to separate important from extraneous, signal from noise.  Whether she wants to or not, she hears everything.

Three months after the implant is activated, sounds are still robotic and low, but during a brain-training exercise in which she reads aloud to herself, for the first time she hears her own normal voice.  She still hears the Darth Vader version too, and the normal voice is faint, but it’s there.  Her brain will take a year to learn to hear but she’s in for the long haul.  Just the other day, she was dusting the piano and heard the notes sounding crisp and right where they should be. And she went to lunch again with six friends and this time lasted 30 minutes.

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I learned all this from Rosemary Pryde herself and from her blog, Read My Lips Blog. Go read it, it’s more interesting than this summary; in some cases I outright plagiarize her.  Rosemary grew up going to regular classes, reading lips, and expecting to fit in with hearing people; and though she’s lived highly sociably, she also says she has felt isolated.  The feeling started when she was young and never went away, she just learned to live with it.

Decades ago, I substitute-taught in a district’s special education classrooms.  I learned many things – like, if a little girl with no arms is not feeling sorry for herself, I shouldn’t feel sorry for her either – but the most unexpected was what I learned with the deaf kids.  They were very little kids and they weren’t Rosemaries — they didn’t have hearing aids, they were still being taught to sign — and their regular teacher could control them but I couldn’t.  They couldn’t hear, they wouldn’t look at me, they were wild, they were unsocialized, they were all but feral.

Later I thought about those kids, what it must be like in a world where you can talk only visually.  And all you have to do to shut out the talk is close your eyes.  I thought how much harder closing your ears is, and how talking then has some sort of urgency, some sense that whether you will or no, other peoples’ words are happening in your head.  And being deaf, maybe you could feel, even more than everyone already feels, that you’re fundamentally the only one and alone, isolated, insular, literally an island.  What I learned then is that we’re not so much a species that sees as one that talks.  We’re a flock animal that talks and listens and keeps talking and never shuts up, and so keeps the flock together.

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Girl dancing, by George Zimbel, 1957, taken at the Keller Cottage for Blind-Deaf Children, Talladega, Alabama; via jjuulliiaann

Girls talking, by AstridWestvang

 

 

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Categorized in: Ann, Health/Medicine, Mind/Brain

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8 thoughts on “Rosemary Learns Hearing. Again.

  1. Ann, your flock analogy is brilliant. I’ve been thinking about it all morning. The George Zimbel photo you selected is captivating, too. And great work describing the physics of hearing; that gave me fits in your class.

  2. Meagan, then you’ll understand when I tell you that those couple of sentences took WAY too long to write.

  3. “They couldn’t hear, they wouldn’t look at me, they were wild, they were unsocialized, they were all but feral.”

    When this statement was pointed out to me I found it difficult to believe what I was reading.

    In truth I felt it necessary to confirm the date of the article – I had assumed it could only have been written somewhere in the middle of the last century.

    But no – it was written in 2013.

    “Rosemary Learns Hearing. Again” is a marvelous read – a warm and informative article ….. but ….. your follow-up is less so.

    You must have had quite a time as a substitute teacher that day several decades ago – regardless – your references to “wild”, “unsocialized”, and “feral” behaviour demonstrates a level of prejudice that, today, is nothing less than bizarre and is totally unacceptable.

    I would like to gently suggest that it might be helpful to spend time at http://www.chs.ca and familiarize yourself with the activities, programs, services, policies and positions of the Canadian Hearing Society. CHS is a charitable organization dedicated to serving the needs of all those who are Deaf, deafened and hard-of-hearing. I believe you will find that the lesson you learned that day might be significantly different than the one you would learn today.

    You might also find it helpful to reconsider the sentiment being expressed in your blog and apologize to the Deaf community.

    Thanks,

    Jay

  4. You’re very polite in your disagreement, and I appreciate that. These little kids had no way of communicating with me nor I with them. I had no prejudice against them, I was surprised and upset with myself because I couldn’t reach them. I’m sure they hadn’t had access to the kinds of services your CHS provides and I’m sure once they did, they became Rosemaries.

  5. Ann, what an interesting essay. I was fascinated by the sentence with “during a brain-training exercise in which she reads aloud to herself, for the first time she hears her own normal voice”. I have never thought about that – what is my normal voice? I can hear myself, and what I hear recorded is not what I think I sound like. But that is probably physics, of the resonance in my head between the real voice and the heard voice. But what about the voice that is in my head as I type these words? It has a timber and pitch. Where did that come from? If I lose my hearing, what happens to that inner voice? If one learns to speak having never heard (which is very difficult), what is the voice you hear when you talk, when you type? Perhaps I never considered that I have an internal voice and where it came from.

  6. As you know, Nick, I haven’t a clue. I asked Rosemary your questions and she said she didn’t have any relevant answers either. But she sent along some information that might help you figure it out:
    Your reader is right that I could hear my own voice with my hearing aid – that is the voice I call normal and I think it IS pretty normal. When I just wear my implant, my voice sounds very much like the Darth Vader example. . . What has started to happen is that I hear both my normal voice and the Darth Vader voice when just using my implant – no hearing aid. The normal voice is very faint still and does not include all the words. I just said ‘hello’ out loud and I hear both the robotic voice and a bit of the normal voice. This is actually terrific progress as it means that the brain is starting to figure out the ‘normal’ part for my right ear. Because I lost most of my hearing in my right ear, the brain had not processed sounds of any kind for more than 60 years so it is taking a while to get its memory back. And a final note, if I remove both my hearing aid and implant processer, I pretty much don’t hear my voice at all, except internally.

    If you figure this out, Nick, let us be the first to know.

  7. Hello Ann,

    I enjoyed reading the first part of your blog outlining Rosemary’s life experience being hard of hearing, deafened and then receiving a cochlear implant. As a hard of hearing person myself who lipreads and was mainstreamed, I too can relate to many of the communication barriers that she encountered in her life.

    Having hearing loss can certainly be isolating and difficult but there are many ways in which to overcome these communication barriers. I have done this by connecting with an organization that provides essential services to people who are culturally deaf or have hearing loss such as, The Canadian Hearing Society (CHS). Agencies such as CHS provide tremendous support not only to community they serve but also to the general public in educating about hearing loss, communication devices and accessibility services (American Sign Language (ASL) or Captioning.

    However, the best experience for me has been getting to know members of the Deaf community whose first language is ASL. I have had the privilege of meeting, communicating (learning ASL) and working with some of the most intelligent, engaging and inspiring individuals that exist. I have also learned that ASL is a very beautiful language and that talking is not the only means of communication.

    So, when I read your experience many years ago with deaf kids, I was taken aback. A few things came to mind. First, it is a known fact that students behave very similarly when they have a substitute teacher whether they are deaf or can hear. [[sentence deleted for civility -- ed.]] To your statement, “ being deaf…that you’re fundamentally the only one and alone”, I strongly suggest you attend a Deaf event where everyone is signing around you. Finally, your concluding statement “we are a flock animal that talks and listens…so keeps the flock together” was the icing on the cake.

    Today’s world, thank goodness, is much more inclusive and accepting of one another’s differences and not trying to make us all Rosemaries.

    Diane Gregoris

  8. As you say, organizations like CHS create a sense of community and reduce isolation, as does sign language — which would certainly be included in any sensible definitions of “talking” and “listening.” These benefits hadn’t yet been felt by the kids I saw. I was also subbing in classes for blind kids, kids who couldn’t control their muscles, and kids with emotional problems; and these classes were my basis for comparison.

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