I’ve had the flu. Not a very bad dose, but enough to put me in bed for a couple of days and enough to block up my ears and cut off my hearing completely. I’ve had blocked ears before after a head cold or a virus but they’ve always “popped” again after a few days. This time they’ve still not “popped” nearly three weeks later and, to begin with, the loss of hearing was almost total, even with my powerful hearing aids. I originally lost a lot of hearing following a bout of flu in my twenties so it’s been hard not to fret that it might all be happening again.
Things are slightly better now but not enough for normal functioning. Here’s what happened.
Saturday morning 7 January – felt fine. Saturday afternoon – terrible, ached all over, felt nauseous, went to bed. Sunday and Monday – in bed but hearing fine. Tuesday – felt well enough to get up but ears blocked. Wednesday – ears horribly blocked. Nigel’s mouth moves but NO sound gets through unless he is about a couple of feet away from my ears. I’ve never known this happen before. Thursday – no better. I phone the doctor (thank goodness for Next Generation Text) who says give it a few days.
Monday of the second week I e-mail Audiology. I’m forever impressed that my local audiology department is so responsive. The receptionist spoke to the manager and got back to me on the Tuesday – you need to get your GP to refer you to the Ear, Nose and Throat Department at Bradford Royal Infirmary.
Wednesday, I phone the doctor again. Our Medical Centre introduced a new system for making appointments last year. Instead of the receptionists making appointments they take a quick note of the problem and arrange for a doctor to call you back. The doctor either gives advice over the phone or makes an appointment if he/she agrees that you need one; it is a vastly better system for prioritising need in an overstretched NHS. Of course you have to use the phone, which is an issue, but with Next Generation Text it works fine. (I’d feel different about it if I was having to describe embarrassing symptoms with an NGTS operator listening in but I’m very happy to talk about deafness).
So a doctor rings me back (on NGTS) and I explain the problem, including the worries about my original flu-related hearing loss. She gives the perfect answer. Essentially she said, “try not to worry about it too much, it’s very unlikely that what you are describing will cause further damage, but I understand just how important your hearing must be to you, so would you like an appointment later this afternoon”. PERFECT. Reassurance, understanding and action. “Yes, please”, I said. Then she said “do you need any hearing support at the appointment?” HURRAH. Perhaps the Accessible Information Standard is making a difference after all; I was beginning to doubt it. I didn’t (need any support) because I don’t sign and my lip reading is pretty good, but it was the right thing to ask someone communicating by text relay.
Later on, I drive to the doctor’s appointment. This was the first time I’d been in a car for ten days and I was shocked to realise I couldn’t hear the engine. It was surreal actually. I pressed the accelerator, took the brake off and the car moved – but I couldn’t hear a thing.
The GP asked questions. Then he twanged a tuning fork and held it against various parts of my skull, asking me to tell him in which position I could hear most clearly. I couldn’t hear anything at all in any position. “Right”, he said, “I’m going to speak to a specialist”. I thought he meant that he would contact someone the next day (it was already about 5.30pm) but he did it right there and then. He rang an on-call Ear Nose and Throat doctor at Bradford Royal Infirmary ENT and told him/her – well, who knows what he said because I couldn’t hear. But the result was that the specialist was again very reassuring that the problem was unlikely to cause any long term damage but they would arrange an appointment to see me.
The day after that things unblocked slightly. I could hear the car. I could have a conversation with one other person; not with ease but I could do it. My ears were still blocked but not so badly. They are still like that now.
A week later I spent a couple of hours at the ENT department. I will spare you the details; the upshot was that tests proved that I have liquid behind both eardrums, which will just have to drain naturally. They estimate maybe another two weeks, perhaps longer. They continue to reassure that eventually it will get better with no permanent damage. I’ve got a follow up appointment.
So that’s where I am now, nearly three weeks after the blockage first started.
The whole episode has set me thinking about a few things.
I will never again say “my ears are completely blocked” unless they are. Now I’ve experienced it I know what it means. “My hearing is slightly muffled” would have been a more accurate description of episodes I’ve had in the past.
I pondered again how incredibly lucky I have been that my hearing loss has been gradual. My coping mechanisms have been built up incrementally over the forty years my hearing has been slowly getting worse. With this blockage the effect was sudden. One day – I felt lousy, ached, lay in bed but could hear like I always do. The next day – the world went silent. And of course, that is the experience of hearing loss that many people suffer. Overnight, they go deaf. Frankly, I don’t know how they (you?) handle it. Of course, people with sudden hearing loss DO cope – what choice is there – but it must be infinitely harder.
Finally, I thought a lot about partners of deaf people. It is just as hard for them. Added to his normal skills (endless patient repeating, never shouting and never getting cross) Nigel has had to add reassuring a fed up and worried wife and spending a lot of time in silence (because it is really hard work to chat at the moment).
I’ll let you know what happens next. I’ve cancelled all my activities involving people in groups for the next few weeks (archaeology meetings, classes I was attending, a class I was about to teach). This is dispiriting, because I enjoy them such a lot, but I am following my own advice about survival strategies for bad hearing times. I’m doing things that don’t involve my ears – cooking, reading, dusting off a project about the history of the house that I researched years ago but have never written up. I’m taking the dog for walks. I’m watching subtitled television and DVDs. I’m waiting, basically, and trying to be patient.
A funny thing is that sometimes I have worried that this blog doesn’t talk enough about the difficult things. I had a post in draft called “is this blog too Pollyanna?” Well, put that in the shredder huh?