Sounds Abound

I just got new hearing aids and they are amazing!  I got my first set after a long period of denial.  In my late 30’s I noticed my left ear was filled with that buzzing and whistling sound called “tinnitus” (pronounced “tin-uh-tis).  I sort of got used to it and was able to ignore it most of the time.  Then my right ear started to get the same noises and I noticed I was having difficulty understanding people in crowds.  I went along with this for over 10 years.

vertigo-treatment-and-the-inner-earI attributed all my tinnitus to listening to too much rock and roll on my handy transistor radio that I hid under my pillow at night.  I just kept going along and not really noticing that I was missing out on much, but I really was.  What finally got me to the hearing specialist was a bout of vertigo.  The dizziness was attributed to the crystals in my inner ear that had gotten out of whack.  The doctor had me in a special chair that reclined.  He had me partially inverted and turning my head back and forth, kind of like one of those lava lamp wave machines (mute your sound) until the spinning subsided.

I didn’t really think much of all this until he recommended that I also have an MRI.   Some people get anxiety with this kind of procedure.  I am lucky.  I don’t.  As a matter of fact, I find this whole thing very interesting!  So, I went for the MRI and waited for the results.  It was confirmed that I had a brain!  What was also confirmed was that I had a tumor on my left acoustic nerve.  This is known as an acoustic neuroma and is relatively rare.  Having found this, the recommendation was that I have it removed.  In other words, I needed to have brain surgery.

gomer-simpson-rentgen-mozgSeeing as I am a seasoned professional, and one who deals with all kinds of brain disorders, I did what most of you would have done (I am guessing here).  I Googled “acoustic neuroma”, read all the scary testimonials, and went into denial for over a year.  I was NOT going to have brain surgery!

The reason I was so sure of this, is that my insurance at the time was with a large, managed care provider that organized care within its network.  Their neurology surgery was done in a hospital over 60 miles away.  The procedure (as they did it) would have required that I go to the facility, be admitted, have my head opened up, the neuroma “stripped” from the nerve, a drain inserted into my brain, and a recovery period of approximately six weeks.

I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of having to leave town to have the surgery done, much less the six week recovery period.  Oh, and I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of having a brain drain, either.  So I did nothing for a year.

denialNow I don’t recommend waiting a year for surgery, especially it if is something that can restore you to full functioning.  But, I know it is not at all unusual for people to go into denial and avoid the prospect that surgery often brings up:  mortality, possibility of poor outcome, fear of all kinds of things.  Here is where I put in a plug for talking with a therapist or counselor.  S/he can help you deal with the anxiety or denial, and assist you in making the right decision for you.

Instead, I utilized several alternative methods for coping with this slow-growing, benign tumor.  I tried visualizations (shrinking that tumor, zapping it with laser beams, dissolving it with white light).  I changed my diet.  I kept reading about neuromas.  And finally, I changed insurance.

This last step got me to the threshold of a most remarkable experience.  I am very lucky to live in an area of the country that has top-notch research institutions.  In this case, I got a referral to the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) neurology clinic.  They validated the findings of the original MRI, now a year old, took some new shots, and determined I was a candidate for gamma-ray knife surgery.

This would entail my coming into the hospital early in the morning, being fitted with a titanium “crown” that would be locked into a machine that looked like an open MRI, and then strategically blasted with short bursts of gamma-rays.  I would be able to leave the same day and not have to worry about a brain drain, because no incision would be made.

I am blessed with friends who knew a lot about UCSF because of their own remarkable story (a successful heart transplant).  These friends took me early one morning for my procedure.  I looked stunning with my titanium crown and sat around for hours while the surgical team mapped out my surgery.  Finally I was loaded into the machine, my crown afixed to the table, and I meditated for the next 30 minutes.  No sounds, no feeling of heat or pain, no muss, no fuss, just a great 30-minute meditation.  Once done, I was released from my crown, assisted in sitting up, joined by the neurology team and sent home.

CFH-BasicsofHearingAidsThe surgery was successful, however, the damage to my acoustic nerve was such that only a little of its functioning was able to be preserved.  It is not clear whether more could have been preserved if I hadn’t waited that year.  This is what led me to getting hearing aids.  My first set made me realize just how much I had been missing.  I was able to understand conversations without having to stare at the person’s face and strain to understand them.  I no longer nodded sagely when someone said something I couldn’t understand, and the instances I totally missed what was said and embarrassed myself with a wrong guess dropped precipitously.

I would go in for my annual hearing test and was pleased with how the hearing aids helped me to adapt to the loss.  The only drawback was that the hearing aids were incredibly expensive.

It is this issue that continues to be a barrier for so many people in getting them.  Most private insurance plans only cover a small percentage of the actual cost.  Medicare covers nothing.

While this makes no sense, it continues to be the sad reality.

In the years since I got my first sent of hearing aids, the technology has improved by leaps and bounds.  I now have a choice of programs that can cancel background noise, accommodate different kinds of locations (e.g., noisy restaurants, movie theater, one-on-one conversations) and are now paired with my smart phone.  All these improvements go a long way in keeping me literally “in the game”.  Studies support what is common sense – if you can hear more, you can engage more.  People who stay engaged have better cognitive functioning and overall are happier.

I encourage all of you to at least get a hearing test.  Yes, you will be offered the opportunity to purchase hearing aids if your hearing is found to be diminishing.  Get the information and don’t worry about the sales pitch.  Do get the hearing aids when you can, if needed.  You are worth the investment.  It will pay big dividends as you age.

diverse-elders

7 comments

  1. Another terrific column and for those of us who are being reluctantly dragged into acknowledgment of hearing loss, we can comfort ourselves that at least we haven’t been told we need brain surgery. Oh, and great illustrations.
    You have such a gift of using humor to de-escalate our tendency to rush to whine and complaint, as if that will help the situation.

  2. Glad you took the time for self care. It is the best use of anyone’s resources. Love you ms mary

  3. Love love love love this one. Perfect photos (altho missing the one of you in the titanium crown). Curious to know what happens to the neuroma when it’s been successfully lasered–just turns into protoplasm and gets reabsorbed by its neighbors? How long ago was this? And do you know that Costco hearing aids are now $800 each? (made by Siemens with Costco brand slapped on)

  4. Great article! As an audiologist for 42 years I can attest to the advances made in hearing technology. A word of caution: When you purchase devices you are paying for the professional expertise and not just the ” device”. Most audiologists carry different levels of technology which translates to a wide range of price ranges. We fit devices according to the hearing profile, lifestyle of the patient, and respect our patients’ budgets.

  5. Hmmm… You are a blessing. I have been having the tinnitus for years and recently the bouts of vertigo. They sent me to an audiologist and she gave me the sales pitch for hearing aides. (very pricey) and now I am in a bit of denial, but mostly because I want to know what is causing the problems. It is definitely now just a loss of hearing. You have just convinced me that a second opinion is necessary. I will be making an appt. for the Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist.

    Thanks for your blog!

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