My Wake-Up Call

IMG_0522 copy
Glen Island Park, New Rochelle, NY – Mary Grace Whalen

 

It was a busy time for me at my job. During the day, I was a full-time employee at our local College, and by night I was teaching three undergraduate courses to adult learners. In between, I was a contracted employee helping out with student advisement.

I’ve always been reluctant to take time off during a busy period, but I was coughing, losing my voice and wished I could just crawl into bed with a box of tissues. Being a stickler for attendance, I have gone as long as two years without taking a sick day. In retrospect, I’m not sure that was always a good thing.

But I rationalized that it would be just a few more days until I would go on vacation with my daughters, Valerie and Melissa. It was Valerie’s 30th birthday, and we planned a trip to Puerto Rico. I imagined myself sitting under a palm tree, with bright sunshine and perhaps a pina colada with a tiny umbrella in hand. I was certain the warm sunshine and a little rest would remedy this bad cold I couldn’t seem to shake.

Upon landing, I noticed I felt a little heady. It was a feeling similar to being underwater. My first thought was that it was a temporary result of the cabin pressure.

My right ear has always been my good ear, even though otosclerosis has permeated both of my ears. My left ear received a stapedectomy years ago, and it temporarily gave me back some of my hearing. Otosclerosis is an abnormal growth of the middle ear bones which causes them to become fixated and reduces the transmission of sound. Because of the otosclerosis, I have a mixed loss in both ears. Despite all of this, with hearing aids my loss was diagnosed as moderate to severe until 2005.

Shortly after we arrived in our beautiful hotel room in San Juan overlooking plush greenery and a pool with sapphire water, I noticed the red light in the hotel room phone was flashing. I placed the phone to my right ear to listen to messages. I thought it was odd that there was no dial tone, but I assumed my hearing aid battery just died. After changing the battery, still no dial tone. The message was beginning to register, but I was still in shock. I placed the receiver up to my left ear, which I never used for phone conversations, and I heard a faint dial tone. I sat there for a minute in disbelief.

My family members have always been my greatest advocates, and although they did everything they could to try to help me communicate, I was grouchy, touchy, depressed and yes scared. It rained every day while we were there, and it seemed fitting.

Upon returning to New York, I visited an ENT doctor who went the usual route in giving me Prednisone with the hope that the loss was temporary. But he did warn me that it was probably permanent because with this drug you must act fast.

I visited my local audiologist and she tested my hearing over a period of weeks. I remember feeling a strong vibration that was painful when she was testing my residual hearing. But no sound. I did see a look of horror on her face and saw her look at me and exclaim, “Mary!” She then came around to where I was seated and hugged me. I was now profoundly deaf in that ear. A hearing aid only provided hissing that only interfered with my ability to hear on the other side.

So this would be my new normal. I had difficulty following in meetings at work. Trying to continue with heavy phone use was a real stressor. I had trouble functioning in a classroom of 30 students. I resented I could not participate in social activities with friends. At family dinners I focused on eating because I could not hear what was going on. Food became a form of instant gratification and I found myself retreating more and more. I found a comfort zone in isolation. Realizing this, well that was my wake-up call.

www.cochlear.com/us/wakeupcall

After anger, denial and a lot of other emotions, I went into the City and visited a few doctors asking for their opinion on how to go forward. That’s when I started searching for peer-reviewed research articles on otosclerosis and cochlear implantation, and I learned many others had been successfully implanted. When I met Dr. J. Thomas Roland, I knew he would be the one to operate on me for my implant. He had operated on others with this condition, and I liked how he explained to me how Cochlear Americas had different arrays for difficult situations, and all options would be ready and available in the operating room. Despite all this, my surgery was uncomplicated and a standard array was used.

IMG_0516 copy
A view of the drawbridge at Glen Island Park     Mary Grace Whalen

One day, after being activated, I took a walk down by the water in my hometown, New Rochelle, NY. Glen Island Park is a pretty shore area with a drawbridge, gazebos, a sandy beach, grassy slopes, hills, tiny sailboats and larger ones passing through when the guard lifts the gate. One of the rites of summer was to hear the ding, ding ding warning for the bridge to rise, and to see the guard wave to those crossing under the bridge. I have many coming-of-age warm memories of Glen Island, — the smell of Coppertone tanning lotion, transistor radios playing doo wop, cute boys with winning smiles and lifeguards in dark sunglasses.

So, there I was just walking across the drawbridge with my 3G, the first behind-the-ear (BTE) processor Cochlear Americas marketed. I stopped midway. I was in awe. I heard the waves rippling for the first time in years! I heard ducks quacking as the waves rippled below. There I was, hanging my arms over the bridge, my face looking down as tears streamed from my eyes. These were the sounds I missed so much from summers past. I felt like someone just gave me oxygen and I was breathing for the first time in a very long time.

IMG_0511 copy
Glen Island Park, New Rochelle NY just as beautiful in winter.  Mary Grace Whalen

Then I became aware of a car slowly crossing the bridge, looking towards me. Perhaps he saw how emotional I got and thought I was going to jump? Then I felt myself laugh at the irony of it all and continued to exit the bridge.

IMG_0521 copy
A view from the gazebo- Glen Island Park-Mary Grace Whalen

 

Since then, I have lost the hearing in my left ear and opted to go bilateral. Two ears are better than one because they help to localize sound. So much has changed since I received that 3G processor years ago. With new accessories I can once again watch TV, go to the movies, listen to music and participate in a conversation with my grandson. While these may seem like simple pleasures, it’s been a long time and I’m feeling very grateful to be experiencing life again in living color.

Views expressed here are my own. Consult your hearing health provider to determine if you are a candidate for Cochlear technology. Outcomes and results may vary.

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 2017. All Rights Reserved. Portions of this article are from my upcoming book, Living In The Color Magenta.

www.marygracewhalen.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections On Being Deaf, Gray and Italian on the “eve” of my 70th birthday

Do you ever look at someone and try to imagine who they were as a child or as a young adult?

img_1465

Each of us has a story, with many chapters.  In a few weeks I will celebrate my 70th birthday.  For many of us, there are many versions of our “self” that include a younger version and the one that will always be in our minds.   But time does pass, and the older I get the more I realize how important time is.  Use it wisely.  It is the ultimate gift each of us is given.

  • fullsizerender
    New Rochelle High School Yearbook 1965

    img_1438
    I think I was 18 in this picture.

On being deaf- If someone had told me in my youth that I would someday be totally deaf, I don’t know how well I would have handled it.  Over the years, I have struggled with this slow progression towards silence and the mindsets society has placed upon those of us who have trouble communicating with the mainstream.  Like most people with hearing loss, I have navigated my journey through rude store clerks, discrimination in the workplace and even jerky people who we thought were sensitive and above treating us like secondhand citizens.

But there is an upside to this experience for sure.  Strangely, I have experienced my greatest growth because of this experience.  Losing my hearing has made me more sensitive to the plight of those on the outskirts of society, it has humbled me and made me really think about what someone else’s journey may be like.  It has also made me determined to complete whatever goals I choose despite being deaf.

In the silence, I heard my own voice and I began to write and publish work.  In my upcoming book, Living In The Color Magenta, I compare going deaf to  smothering and drowning.  That is what it always felt like to me. Going down, no one hearing you and having no voice.  I have said it before, and I will say it again.  If it weren’t for the Hearing Loss Association of America www.hearingloss.org over the last more than 25 years, I don’t know how well I would have fared.  This organization gives people like me a place to go to advocate and share with others in our journey.  Hearing loss is isolating, and like many others I have tremendous respect and gratitude for their work.  This organization and the love of my family gave me courage when I really needed it. We need to always pay it forward.

I am very lucky to be living in an era where there is something called a cochlear implant.  Helen Keller, Thomas Edision, Beethoven and so many others were not.  Almost every week someone approaches me and asks me about this miraculous operation.  I can wake up deaf, and put on my implants and be part of the hearing world.  For this, I will always be grateful.

1012 About gray (grey) hair-I remember finding my first gray hairs when I was 26 years old and pregnant with my first child.  I was mortified.  How could I already have grays?  My hair was very dark brown, and I was still wearing a “Cher” hairdo with bangs and long dark tresses.  The steely grays really stood out.  Over the next 40 years, I went from dark brown to light brown, auburn, blonde and platinum.  One day after being sick and not being able to make it to the colorist, I examined my shimmery grays showing through at the part and I just said, “I’m not doing this anymore.”  I kind of liked that my natural pearly shade matches best with my dark Italian coloring, and it was very liberating to accept my new look and older self.  

To each his own.  I see many women ditching the bottle and feeling confident enough to be  comfortable with their changing looks.  Even my colorist told me in recent years, “You actually look younger with your own natural hair color, even though I lost a customer.”  I appreciated that.

But growing older is about so much more than gray hair.  Time is passing and we are becoming older and more vulnerable.  There’s a greater chance for serious illness or a fall.  That sometimes  scares me.  We lose lots of people we care for and love. These losses are profound.

I have always tried to be there for my children.  I think every parent always feels they want to help their children if there is a crisis for as long as they live.  But somewhere along the way, the tables turn and our kids become our strength.  It’s beautiful to have wonderful children,  but kind of shocking to witness this shift.

On being Italian- I will always be grateful for my strong Italian roots.  Being the daughter of an immigrant parent allowed me to understand the plight of so many generations who have come to the U.S.  My parents gave us a strong Christian faith, my Italian-born father’s love of opera and his garden were inspiring.  My mother’s binding efforts to give us a traditional, strong family life complete with ethnic foods and rituals.  Christmas, Easter Sunday, faith hope and patriotism… all of these were true gifts.

img_1464
Mom with all seven of her children
20141213_103149-2
Mom making her famous lasagne
img_1362
With my parents, five of my six sisters and brothers
img_0479
Easter Sunday
img_0202
With 3 of my 4 sisters a few years ago celebrating St. Patrick’s Day

A few more observations-

Sometimes I can still hear my mother’s voice– At this stage of my life, I look so much like my mother, I almost expect her to answer back when I look in the mirror.  My mother made it through some pretty tough stuff.  As a child, I always felt she was so strong it was almost intimidating.  But somehow, that shy little girl I used to be inherited some of her resilience.  I am grateful for that gift.  I recently was hospitalized after a fall and in serious condition.  As I looked up and saw IV attached to one arm, a nurse taking blood from the other, while one nurse waited to take my temperature and blood pressure, I heard words like sepsis, 104 fever, put her in cardiac care, etc.  Was my life in danger?  How would my mother handle this?  Suddenly, I could hear her firm voice speaking to the grim reaper saying, “I’m not going anywhere!”  So I repeated that phrase in my mind and it gave me courage. I’ve had these moments before, andI suspect I will have them again.

On fathers and daughters- Fathers definitely have a lot to do with how a woman will see herself as worthy and lovable.  I was lucky to have a father that instilled that in me and a good husband who gave that gift to his daughters.

img_1658

On being in love- I’m glad that I have loved and been loved.  Even though it hurts like hell when you lose someone, it is an experience to not be missed.  It is one of the greatest gifts in life. No one can ever take that away from you.

Family- It’s all that matters.  Period.  So glad my daughters are not just sisters, but they have always been best friends.

2015-10-06-12-20-35
Birthday parties

 

2015-08-22-09-12-40
Vacationing in Sag Harbor 2015

img_0413     img_1330

On being a grandma- There is nothing like it!  Love this little boy.  I want to watch my grandson grow taller than me, watch him fall in love for the first time, hear his stories and keep that special connection we have forever.

IMG959381 img_1611

On dogs- they really are nicer than people 🙂

img_1469

Time-  It all comes down to time well spent.  How have you spent your time today?  My kids told me they are holding me to living to 100 years old, and that’s 30 more years of good living for this deaf, gray and Italian lady.  I’m sure there will be many more life lessons.  I’m ready.

 

Happy Birthday to me!   Cheers!

 

img_0508

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting From “Hear” To There

It is now five months since I have received my second cochlear implant.  For many of us, progress is evident when we once again hear the sounds around us that we once heard.  Many of those sounds are of nature, and what better season is there to celebrate the gift of sound than spring?

Here in New York, we had several unseasonable balmy days in the month of March.  Once such morning, I opened my terrace door and to the sound of a symphony of birds singing.  Although I live in a business district, the back of my complex borders with a nature preserve.  My first thought was that many of the migrating birds must have already flown back.  It seemed there must be a greater concentration of birds than last spring.  Then it dawned on me, — bilaterally, I am hearing their sweet songs in greater detail.

Then we had several windy days that followed.  Hearing the wind whistling while treetops swayed and my windows rattled made me feel like I was once again connected to a universe that announces it’s presence with the eerie sound of the wind.

One of the most profound moments was on one of those balmy nights in March as I was sitting at my computer writing.  Suddenly, lightening flashed through the sky and a quaking thunder crackled and I jumped out of my chair.  I looked out the window and listened again for the next round, then listened to the rain fiercely hitting my window panes.  I tried to remember the last time I heard the dramatic sounds of a thunder storm which always has made me feel a strong connection to the universe we live in.  Lights, camera, action!  I love it!

Some sounds are not as dramatic, but they make us feel more connected to the world we live in.  I live in a mid-rise building, and although I am living here six years, this is the first time I am really hearing what is going on around me.  When I am home, I can hear my neighbor next door talking on the phone from one room.  I can also hear when children return from school around 3:30 and walk the halls and talk to their friends.  I can hear the woman across the hall place her key in her door at about 6:45 p.m. when she returns from work.  I can hear the neighbor below me keeps her TV volume a bit high.  I can hear the funny noises in my apartment when the heat comes up.  I can hear when someone shuts their windows or terrace door.  I can hear the guy on the third floor in the elevator and when he talks to me in the complex gym, although he mumbles.

For a decade or more, I have watched TV with the sound off and just captions.  With the new bluetooth and mini-mike devices  that came with my Cochlear brand processor, I am watching TV and now able to hear voices of newscasters and those of my favorite shows.  I go to the gym and listen to oldies while I pick up my stride and aim to do my 10,000 steps armed with my Fitbit.  I can go to a Broadway show and sit in a seat as close to the front as possible and plug my mini mike into the assistive device and hear the show.  I can hear very, very well with the bluetooth phone clip paired with both processors, something I couldn’t do before.

Most of all, I am now able to have a decent conversation with my two-year-old grandson.  He tells me about his swimming lessons, nursery school, we sing songs, play games, and I feel he is getting to know me even better.  Somehow, he seems to understand about my implant.  Once day he pointed to my implant and said, “That helps you hear?”  The insight of a child.

As a Cochlear Americas volunteer, this past fall I was honored to be part of two videos telling my story as a recipient.  At the time, I was anticipating getting my second implant.  The first video shows several people of all ages around the world reciting the Cochlear mantra.  It is a heart-warming video that celebrates the gift of sound.  If you would care to see the video, go to www.cochlear.com.  Quickly “x” out the screen that blocks the pictures of the recipients and click on the first video.

The second video (and blog) tells my story about my lifelong dream to learn to swim, and how I am living that dream today because of the Aqua Plus device.  Go to http://thewire.cochlearamericas.com , scroll down to April 5, 2016 and view the video and read my story.

Later this year, I am hoping to publish my book entitled Living In The Color Magenta. I will keep you posted.

In the meantime, although the progress for my newly-implanted ear is already up to the first implant I received 11 years ago, I will continue my rehabilitation and listening exercises for a couple of hours each day.  Worth mentioning is the need for all of us to receive aural rehabilitation.  The rewards are vast.  Happy hearing!