Thursday, November 06, 2014

Out of the Half Silent Planet

You know that scene in more than one old Hollywood movie, the one of a doctor slowly unwinding a bandage from some beautiful girl's face, then carefully pulling gauze pads from her eyes?

"Now, open your eyes."

The beautiful girl blinks.

We get a point-of-view shot of a blurred ping-pong ball with a few furr-edged dark shapes on its surface.  In a moment, the ping pong ball resolves into the doctor's face, eyes, hair, nose, mouth.

The girl's jaw falls open. "I can see," she says tremulously.  Her eyes show no trace of ever having been damaged (and if the movie was made before 1967, are also carefully made up). The camera cuts to the face of her mother, who's standing just behind the doctor.  Her mother is wearing a Chanel suit and crying silently, for joy, into her gloved hands (if before 1967).

"I can see!" the patient exclaims.  The mother,  and a nurse with a heart of gold, move in for hugs.  "Oh Darling!" says the mother.  "Thank God!  Thank you Dr. _____!"

The Doctor is a modest man, so his only emotion is relief.  He issues a few instructions to the nurse and the patient and maybe a warning or two, depending on the plot.

Well, with a variation or two (or twenty) I played out this scene two days ago in an examining room in our local medical center.

First variation, a biggie, it wasn't my sight that was restored.  It was my hearing.  Well, some of my hearing - in one of my ears.  The formerly deaf ear which was operated on by an ear-nose-and-throat doctor (is that less glamorous than an ophthalmologist?) just one week and two days ago.

Also, substitute "beautiful girl" for "gone-to-seed nearly fifty-something."   And my doctor, though of perfectly nice appearance, was not exactly Cary Grant.  As a real, actual doctor who can fix things that seem unfixable for actual people - including gone-to-seed nearly 50-somethings - he was better than that.

Our scene also didn't include the drama of an unwinding bandage. It did, however, include an ear  examining tool, one that lowered from the ceiling of the exam room.  My Doctor inserted into this a very small suctioning instrument.  The miracle moment for me didn't include a bandage but a slurping out, very loudly,  of an ear canal full of clotted blood and gunky, week-old bacitracin. Also, we had no audience.  The nurse, who wore scrubs (long gone are white-capped and dressed movie nurses) was off helping someone else.

"The bacitracin jams the suctioning, hold on," he said.

The key part of that last bit was "very loud."

My right ear has been dying a slow death since 2001.  In our pre-op meeting weeks ago, my doctor had blown a puff of air into both of my ears in order to get a look at my ear anatomy.  I didn't realize that any sound accompanied the puff in my right ear until he administered the same puff into my still functioning left ear.

About the only thing my right ear was good for at that point was for picking up the rumbling of say, a jet engine, if I was right next to it.  So to hear loud slurping over there was a big change.

I have a condition known as otosclerosis.  As a result, my hearing fell away, year by year, from my right ear starting in my mid thirties.  I have written about it here a couple of times. I tried hearing aids and found them a nuisance that offered little benefit.  More on that in a minute.

I had consulted with this same doctor four years ago.  At that time, he pronounced me a good candidate for hearing aids (both ears, actually) and said the risk with surgery was that I could lose the hearing I had left in my right ear.  I went away and tried hearing aids, again.  Unfruitfully.

I once saw a hearing aid described as being a flashlight in the dark.  Better than nothing, but not the same as sunlight.  Sound  filtered through a hearing aid  has always struck me as if it has been  arranged by a particularly unskillful high school AV crew - a tinny microphone that helped, some, but that was nothing like real, natural ear hearing.  Also, for some reason, good hearing aids cost a fortune. Worse still, I'm not good with accessories.  I lose jewelry, hair bands, glasses, gloves, hearing aids.

By this year, my kids were increasingly functioning like service animals when we were out together.  "Mom, he asked you a question," my son or daughter would say with an embarrassed air.  I would turn and find a waiter or some passer by.  "She's half death," my son would then announce to the poor stranger whom I had ignored.  (At least that's what it sounded like to me).  People whose voices fall within a certain low register were nearly completely inaudible to me.  Something had to be done.

As you know if you've been paying attention here, I went to see Kate Bush sing in London at the end of September.  I was worried about what I wouldn't hear at the concert.   I got a new custom-made prosthesis for my powerful hearing aid before the event.  The audiologist who fitted it was full of praise for the surgeon with whom I had by then made an appointment.

Kate Bush went fine, but see aforementioned AV crew reference.  I took off the hearing aid part way through the show. It was loud enough that I don't think I missed anything important, though her banter was lost on me.  Shortly after getting back from London, I saw the Doctor.

This time, he said I had a 96 percent chance of improved hearing if I went under his little tiny knife.  He doubted my right ear could be corrected to be as good as the left.  But I had heard enough.  We scheduled the surgery to take place within two weeks of that pronouncement.

The surgery for otosclerosis has been around for a long time now.  It was first performed in 1956 on "54-year-old housewife," as per Wikipedia, who "could no longer hear, even with a hearing aid."  It involves cutting loose the stuck stapes bone - the "stirrup" you learned about in third grade - and drilling a little hole in the foot plate thereof and inserting a new prosthetic piston to carry sound waves.

I am writing this about 48 hours after my non-movie scene of gurgling suctioning.  My first week post-op, even my first moments post-op, offered me sounds I hadn't heard in years - a conversation from the next bed to my right, my own heart beat in my right ear etc. but yesterday was the first day with nothing left in my ear from the surgery, except some residual swelling.  I took the new ear for a spin.  After a few hours, I had to retreat to my bed.

I got a little sick to my stomach, maybe from the messed up middle ear, or maybe because I was overstimulated.

 I had been warned by my father, who has the same condition (as yet to be corrected but he's following along), that many people complain post surgery how noisy the world is.  Yesterday that was me.  This functioning, or even only half functioning right ear is going to take some getting used to.  When did dishes clatter so? When did car doors slam with such force?  Putting a jar in the refrigerator includes sound?  Who knew?  I went to a couple of grocery stores yesterday but then had to run home to my empty house and put some ear medicine and cotton ball into that new ear.  My God, even this Macbook keyboard makes sounds?  Everything, except speech, with which I am still struggling, seemed assaultive. I've been in a half silent planet for so long...

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not complaining.  I'm just trying to describe how startling it is to get back a lost sense.  I assume I'll get used to it and I hope that one day my grandchildren will be happy to see me - instead of dreading having to shout short conversations at an old lady.

On the day of my surgery, the nurse in pre-op who collected my glasses left a little card in the plastic bag with my glasses case.  It notes, for purposes of any future MRI scans, that I have a middle-ear prosthesis.  It's the size of a hair.  So, while my little restored ear story may not be movie material, and while Jesus himself may not have laid hands upon me an unstopped my ear, it is miracle enough and drama enough for me.