Five weeks on from my ears becoming totally blocked after a virus, things are a lot better. Not normal yet, but massively improved. I can’t tell you how relieved I am. Despite reassurances from the medical profession, it was scary. Here’s what’s been going on since the first post.
By the end of that post I was talking about a slight but significant improvement. Some sound got through. Some speech came back. But it wasn’t the speech I was used to hearing and it took a lot of hard work to understand, even sitting in a quiet room focussed on just one person. I was like this on the day of my follow-up appointment at the Ear Nose and Throat Department. Sitting in the room with the doctor, concentrating hard, I could follow what he said, which was to repeat the diagnosis that I had fluid behind the eardrums and it would eventually drain. I didn’t explain last time how they knew this. There is a procedure called tympanometry where an audiologist uses an instrument to cause a short puff of pressure in the outer ear (it doesn’t hurt) to assess whether the eardrum is vibrating normally in response. Mine wasn’t. The fluid in the middle ear, behind the eardrum, was stopping it moving as it should, so sounds weren’t travelling through the ear to my cochlear and brain.
The doctor was reassuring and kind and I asked how long it might take. “It could take weeks yet”, he said, grimacing sympathetically. Instinctively I groaned “oh no….” and started telling the tale of everything I couldn’t do and how difficult things were – from not even being able to talk normally to my husband to cancelling all the activities I had planned for the late winter (all of which seemed to involve meetings, talks and people in groups). Then I stopped myself, raised both hands in a gesture of apology and said something like “I’m sorry – this isn’t helping” but he was quick to step in and say “no, no, I quite understand – you have very poor hearing and this event has reduced it very significantly even from that level – I can appreciate how upset you must be and how difficult you must be finding it.” Another perfect medical response. How important it is to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
He had an action plan too. He prescribed six days of steroid nose drops, to attempt to speed up the clearing of the Eustachian tubes, which is how the fluid needed to drain. He advised me to try to “pop” them periodically by blowing gently down my nose with my nose held closed. He explained that if all else failed they could drain the fluid (with grommets I think…..like a child with glue ear) but that he needed to try non-invasive methods first. He would organise another follow up appointment in about four weeks.
Off I went home to try the drops. I’d been told to administer them by lying flat on my back on the bed with my head lolling backwards over the side, so that my nose was more or less upside down, thus maximising the chances of the drops getting to the right place. It didn’t sound too bad. Eager to try any treatment that might work I went upstairs and flung myself enthusiastically into position. Oh goodness. The room reeled, my stomach heaved…… Groaning, I hauled myself back onto the bed and lay still for a while, until the room stopped spinning. To cut a long story short, I learnt over the next week to ease myself gingerly into position, keeping my eyes closed throughout. Then it was OK. And talking of “gingerly”, ginger tea helped the nausea.
Meanwhile, life went on. Our dog Izzy has been a lifesaver over the past few weeks. Taking her for walks was the one bit of life that felt fully normal for a while. I love being out with her, she never says anything and (oddly) I could hear whatever I said to her. Some people tell me they chat to their dogs on walks. I don’t but I do sometimes say things, whether it is “what a beautiful morning Izzy, aren’t we lucky?” or “for goodness sake leave that alone” (what is it with Labradors and smelly rabbit carcasses?). I could “hear” all this quite clearly, maybe because my brain already knew what I was saying!? Indeed sometimes I convinced myself that my hearing was better, and then felt deflated when I got home and it wasn’t.
The exercise was good for my morale (all those endorphins) and the cold winter air made my nose run (which I convinced myself was helping clear the blockage).
Back home, things very slowly improved, although progress wasn’t linear. Some days more sound seemed to be getting through, then the next day things went backwards again. But gradually, the sounds of the house started returning – the tapping of the keyboard first, then the washing machine, eventually the fan oven. When I was watching subtitled TV I began to hear the sound of speech, even if I couldn’t decipher it. To begin with, there had just been silence.
Speech, of course, is always the hardest. All those annoying, high-pitched, short, rapid consonants. What a miracle it is that people “hear” and make sense of it. Gradually, though, Nigel and I progressed. (I wasn’t really talking to anyone else). We moved from short sentences, sitting within three or four feet of each other, both of us sometimes thinking “is this communication absolutely essential?” to slightly easier chats. We then progressed to really quite detailed conversations from – oh – all the way across the kitchen.
I then braved going to see friends. Ruth filled me in on the archaeology group’s activities. Fiona gamely responded when I turned up more than once at her house, barking out “say something – I’m trying to gauge if it’s any better”.
Today?? Things are better. Speech still doesn’t sound exactly as I remember it from Christmas time (crackly?? too quiet??) but it is back. I’m hoping for another hearing test at the next follow-up appointment so that I can substitute facts for memory. Normal life is returning. On Saturday Fiona and I went to the theatre (captioned performance, but we talked all the way there in the car and train – something I couldn’t have conceived of just a few days previously).
I am hugely grateful for this happy ending and quite humbled by the effect such a minor thing has had on me. Minor because it seems to be almost over (after only five weeks – it seemed like eternity but it really wasn’t) and minor because other people suffer so much worse. In the first post I talked about people who suffer from permanent sudden hearing loss. The technical term for one form of this is SSHL (Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss). There are blogs if you would like to learn more about it.
Laura Lowles experienced SSHL in 2014 and started her blog, The Invisible Disability and Me, to talk about her experiences and to try to help other people in a similar position. She has a cochlear implant now and has just published a short e-book giving lots of hints and tips for coping with hearing loss. Proceeds from the book are going to the excellent charity Hearing Link, so a purchase supports a very good cause.
More immediate and raw is a new blog by Carly – a young British woman living and working in Spain – who experienced SSHL in one ear in December. She is blogging about her life as she undergoes treatment – in hospital to begin with and now back home. Do read it – it brings home how trivial my experience has been.
Post Script: Even since first drafting this post a couple of days ago things have improved further. It seems as if the nose drops made a huge difference, although the passage of time probably helped too. I haven’t braved groups of people yet but I will soon. I feel as if I’m back, if you know what I mean.
Finally then, a HUGE thank you to NHS doctors, to Nigel, to Izzy and to all my friends (both flesh and blood and cyber) – your support really kept me going and I’m very grateful.