Part One: The Story of What Happened
In June 2017, a few days before the national SHRM conference in New Orleans, I noticed that my ears felt kind of clogged, particularly my left ear. I’d had allergies so I wasn’t particularly worried. Then, later in the day, my left ear kind of went dead. As in…couldn’t hear anything at all. I thought my phone was broken because I couldn’t hear the ring tone when I held it up to my ear. Still, I wasn’t worried because I figured it was congestion. I’d just take some Sudafed and use some Swim-Ear to dry it out.
The next morning, I still had no hearing in that ear.
Knowing I was getting on a plane in less than 48 hours (and knowing how PAINFUL it is to fly with a clogged ear), I went to Urgent Care to see what was up. The doctor there took a look up my nose and in my ears and said it was most likely congestion as he didn’t see any infection. Told me to take Sudafed and use nose drops for a couple of days and it would clear up.
Those of you who saw me at SHRM17 knew I couldn’t hear you if you sat on my left side. I suspect a few of you took advantage of that (bless your evil little hearts). By the end of the conference, I was starting to get some hearing back, so I was confident the doctor had been right and I’d be hearing again in no time.
Not so much.
Six weeks later, my hearing hadn’t really improved in that ear and I was starting to get tinnitus (not really a ringing – more like what you hear when you hold a seashell to your ear). I went to an ENT (ear-nose-throat) specialist who informed me it wasn’t congestion; rather, I was one of the lucky folks who experience sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL). This was most likely caused by a deep inner ear infection I didn’t even know I had that damaged my cochlea. Even better…it turns out that had the doctor at Urgent Care recognized it, he could have given me steroids that would have given me about a 70% chance of getting my hearing back. As it stood, it was too late to do anything. The ENT said this with such remorse, I had to tell her it was going to be okay.
That first hearing test showed my right ear was fine. But my left ear was down to 75% word recognition.
I was told to give it a few months to see how it stabilized, then get retested. Oh, and I got to get an MRI because in a few cases (not many, but you want to be careful) some people (hardly anyone, but still) turn out to have a benign tumor growing in their ear bones (really, this hardly ever happens, but let’s just be sure).
No tumor. Nothing structurally wrong.
At the time of my second hearing test, I’d developed pulsatile tinnitus (so imagine hearing your heartbeat in your ear REALLY LOUDLY only it sounds squishy). Oh, and my left ear’s word recognition rating went down to around 35% – meaning it can’t really recognize any words at all, and most frequencies are right out.
Because of the pulsatile tinnitus, I was sent to get a CT-scan with contrast because sometimes (not that often, but you want to check) pulsatile tinnitus is caused by a vascular issue, like a growing aneurysm (don’t be worried…but schedule it soon), so it’s good to check these things.
Thankfully, the CT-scan showed no problems. And the technology is wicked cool, but I couldn’t have my eyes open because apparently it would have made them not work anymore. Which is a bummer, because I really wanted to see how it worked. This lack of underlying cause means 1) I’m in the 30% of people for whom there IS no cause of pulsatile tinnitus, and 2) I may never get rid of it. Or it will come and go.
Having been medically cleared of weird ear things, I made an appointment to be fitted for hearing aids.
I’m 43, by the way.
In case you’re wondering, yes – it does kind of suck to be told you have permanent hearing loss. It sucks even more when you did what you’re supposed to do and went to the doctor right away, just to not be given the right treatment. But I’m not mad about that because I was very congested and have had blocked ears my whole life, and the doctor went with the diagnosis that was the most likely scenario (when you hear hooves, think horses, not zebras). It could have had a better outcome, but wasn’t guaranteed. Besides, I can’t do anything about it now, so what’s the point? And my right ear is still at 100%.
I was mostly worried because I’m a singer. And you really need to be able to hear the people around you (and yourself) to be able to sing properly. Luckily, it didn’t impact me TOO much – I just noticed I had to listen differently. I’m sure it impacted my pitch a bit, but no one threw anything at me, so I’m calling it a win.
I do notice that in crowded areas, or in a group discussion, it’s hard to follow anything going on across the way or from my left side. This causes me to pull back in group settings even more than I normally would because it’s just too tiring to try and follow everything that’s being said. I figured if someone REALLY needs me to respond, they’ll repeat themselves.
I’m not writing about hearing aids just yet, because this happened in 2017. Hearing aids are expensive and I need my flex spending account to kick in so I can go buy said hearing aids. I need 2 because just amplifying sound in my left ear would be useless (I’d hear mush LOUDER, which seems pointless). So I will have a receiver in my left ear that will transmit sound from that side to a hearing aid in my right ear, which will interpret the sound as though it’s coming from my left. HOW COOL IS THAT??? Hearing aid technology has come a long way. And I’m hopeful it will help the tinnitus. Basically, tinnitus is a result of your brain freaking out that it can’t hear something from an ear anymore, so it creates fake sound to trick itself into thinking the ear is working. It’s like phantom pain from a missing limb. Our brains are so freaking weird.
Next up: Part Two – What I learned.…