Saturday, November 9, 2013

For Granted

"Blindness separates people from things;

deafness separates people from people.”

Hellen Keller

Sight, smell, taste, SOUND.  All things I take for granted.  As I would guess, do many of you.  So why am I thinking about being without? For two reasons really. One is my best friends is scheduled to have a cochlear implant surgery in 9 days.  For over forty years she has been losing her hearing and now is completely deaf in both ears.  Because the hearing loss has been gradual, she has never really learned sign language.  She communicates almost entirely through lip reading.  And though she does this well, there is no substitution for genuine keys jingling, clocks ticking, faucets running...

The other is I just finished reading the book she recommended to me called, He is not me - A deaf childhood. A hearing adulthood. One life. by Stuart McNaughton.  The book is written by an Englishman who was deaf until age 23 when he underwent a cochlear implant surgery.  He writes clearly and concisely (granted, he could use a good editor!) about his childhood, never quite belonging or feeling like a whole person in his effort to communicate with a hearing world.  His book ends 11 years after his hearing is restored and he has enjoyed a fast-paced career, traveled the world, and met all kinds of people. He labels himself an "in-between" not deaf but not hearing.  Most of the story is a personal journey of maturity and self discovery but at the same time he illustrates almost poetically what it was like to hear a bird for the first time, the waves, or even his mother's voice on the telephone.  Much of his book focuses on human relationships, some failed, some successful, and how the gift of hearing played a major part in their outcomes.  Inspiring but also humbling.

In reading about how the implant operates I am even more blown away with the way the human ear works!  In order for an implant to be successful the auditory nerve must be intact.  The cochlea, where the device is implanted, is the small snail looking thing in the inner ear.  Normally sound travels down the ear canal, vibrates the ear drum, crosses along three tiny bones through a window into the cochlea where it bends little tiny hairs inside the middle canal, causing an electrical current to send information along the auditory nerve into the brain.

Normal hearing aides work by increasing the sound crossing through all these conductive membranes.  However, the most common cause of hearing loss is the death of the cilia or little hairs in the cochlea.  There is no longer anything left to make electric currents to send to the brain so no matter how loud the sound is going in, there is nothing to convert it to something the brain can understand.

A cochlear implant bypasses all these things: external ear canal, ear drum, middle ear.  Small electrodes are placed in the cochlea where they act as small hairs, creating electrical stimulation of the auditory nerve.  The electrodes are connected to a very tiny implant that surgeons place under the scalp.  In order for sound to convert to electricity, an external device must be connected to the implant.  This device processes and converts sound to digital information.  This information then transfers to the implant which in turn sends it to the cochlea via the electrodes and from there the auditory nerve is able to deliver the information to the brain.

Quite complicated!  And amazing!  I am so happy to see technology at its best: working together with medicine to improve and restore people's lives.  Do I think not having hearing is the end of the world?  Of course not!  One of the most interesting topics I found McNaughton covered was that some hearing impaired people who would benefit from a cochlear implant choose not to have one.  They don't want to change.  Being deaf is a part of who they are.  And that is understandable too. My experience in life is if you are content with what you have and who you are, then most likely you are in a better place than the majority of the population!  But for those who do want more, what a blessing to have this option!  And for something that even fifty years ago would have been impossible, what an inspiration for all of us to keep looking for our own miracles in life.

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