My Wake-Up Call

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sooo…What’s it like to date and be deaf, gray and Italian?

In an old re-run of the Sex and the City series, Candice Bergen plays Carrie’s single boss.  She laments to Carrie that the older man in her life should be seeking women his own age, and that every time an older man seeks an younger partner, the pool gets smaller for her and other older women.  This statement represents a belief held by many older women.

I married my high school sweetheart.  A few years after being widowed, I started dating again. Wow was that ever a shock for me to see what dating was like at 56!   I can’t say there aren’t good and nice men out there.  Sometimes the chemistry just isn’t there.  But as mama says, you can’t hurry love.  I have often looked up to the sky and wondered what my husband would have thought of some of the crazy men I have dated.  I then imagine him looking back down at me shaking his head and asking, “Where did you meet that guy?”  But someday, if we meet again, I have a lot of stories to tell.

Admittedly, the first man I dated I broke up with because I simply wasn’t ready.  Not his fault.  He WAS a good guy.  It’s just some of the random experiences in between then and now that if anything have made me more aware, and yes given me a few laughs.

Take the hairstylist who always wanted to know if I was seeing someone.  Bingo! She knew a man who wore hearing aids, was my age and loved traveling all over the country in his RV, — something I would like to do someday.  There’s a lot of truth to the fact that we who have hearing aids or cochlear implants sometimes communicate differently, and it takes a special person to understand that.  But that is where the similarity between me and this man ends as I soon learned.  We arranged a meeting.

He took me to a top-rated restaurant and called ahead to ask for seating that was conducive to my hearing loss, which was far worse than his.  Nice.  Then after telling him I was trying to lose weight so I was going to watch what I ate, he ordered plate after plate of appetizers, insisting that I taste them all.  I’m sure he meant well.  But he spent the whole night lamenting about how his second wife left him, — taking most of his assets before leaving.  He never asked me anything about my life.  He just talked nonstop.

Then there was the guy who really tried to come into my world of profound hearing loss by learning sign language for those times I might need a little extra help.  That really touched my heart.  But he didn’t know how to talk to wait staff, and returned just about every meal he ordered out with statements about how poorly the food was prepared.  As the mother of a professional chef,  I didn’t digest that well, no pun intended.  Then one night, he asked me to close all the lights in my house because he “borrowed some money from some bad people” who were after him.  My home is not a stakeout!  I later learned his his ex-wife was also after him for child support payments.

By now, I had already received my first cochlear implant.  How about the guy who wanted to know if my hearing would get worse?  I told him I did not come with a warranty.  Besides, he had a life-threatening illness.  What if I asked him about that?  Wouldn’t it be rude? Truth is, my hearing DID get worse.  I now wear two cochlear implants.  So what?

Now this really gets good, or bad might be a better word.  I met this guy who was widowed like me.  Had two kids.  Brought me flowers. Not one dozen, but two dozen on the first date.  Took me to the top of the Rock and on a dinner cruise around Manhattan in the same day.  Took me on a helicopter ride around Manhattan another day and to see the Rockettes perform the Christmas show.  We ate in the best of restaurants and had a lot of fun together.  And then he planned a picnic upstate because I mentioned loving to photograph cows.  But he got into foul moods sometimes without explanation.  He was a no-show for New Year’s eve, and he told me he punched the TV when he found out the diagnosis of his new dog was “deaf.”  I said, “The dog is dead?,” when he called me on the phone.  He said no, “THE DOG IS DEAF!”  So now he had a deaf dog and and a deaf girlfriend.  So his behavior prompted me to do a Google search on him.  It turned out he had a long history of drug and alcohol abuse, and he had an arrest for driving down the street the wrong way in another state under the influence.  He didn’t drink or show evidence of drugs when he was with me, except the moods.  But I attributed it to the grief that comes when we have lost a spouse.  When I read about his abuse and knew how I trusted him, my whole body shook.  I had to sit down and process it.  Although he was of Russian/Jewish heritage, he put down on the record I found on Google that he was Cambodian.  He must have been flying high!

Then there was the profoundly religious man 10 years my junior who loved my silver tresses.  He would call me on the phone at night when he got out of work and talk to me, — for four hours on average.  We talked about life.  About God.  He quoted Biblical passages.  He even told me after his marriage failed he was considering converting to Episcopalian to become a priest.   He opened doors, paid for everything, and I even invited him to meet my children on Christmas eve.  Then he started acting weird.  So, once again this prompted me to do a Google search on him, which I should have done in the first place.  Trust is earned.  Well, not only did he already have another girlfriend when he met me, but she created a blog warning other women to stay away from him.  This woman never knew I existed, but if I ever met her I would have thanked her for not letting me get into this any deeper.

Some of the funniest experiences I have had have been through online dating.  Men lie about their age.  When you meet them in person, they don’t look anything like their picture.  I never went out with anyone who didn’t post a picture.  Show your face if you have nothing to hide.  Then there is the type who has no picture, no profile information but just messages you with a phone number.  Huh?  What is there to love about someone who won’t be transparent?  Then there is the type that posts a profile like it is a resume listing all their accomplishments since the Beatles came to town, letting us know they were at Woodstock and that everyone thinks they are really perhaps 35 or 40. Right!

At the end of my work life, I was an adjunct professor of English.  I taught writing and research courses, and I found myself mentally marking up online profiles with that little red pen in my head.  If you are going to lie, use spellcheck!

Here are some examples:

“I went to collage.”

“I am a docter.”

“I like feminine woman who wear colon.”

Then there is the actual meeting.  One guy I was suppose to meet at Panera Bread for coffee, suddenly stepped out from a hidden doorway when he saw me.  Was he going to slip away if he didn’t like what he saw?

Also,  there was the guy who posted a profile picture about 20 years old that looked like he escaped from a nursing home when we met.  He told me he was from Poland, and that I should know his story was like that of Dr. Zhivago, leaving a wife behind that he later divorced. That he was involved in testing behavior modification in a joint project with the United States.  He claimed he escaped the former Soviet Union and the iron curtain.  History gave away his age.  For a man with a doctorate, if he was going to be a liar, he should at least have a good memory.  It was actually very nice to talk to someone smart. But no thanks.

As far as ethnicity is concerned, the beauty of this age is that we are not out to impress anyone or satisfy their limitations.  We date whomever we wish to date, and many of us care more about mutual values than background.  Diversity can only enrich our experience.  To each his own, but a dedicated, loving partner trumps differences.

I have since given up on online dating, although I know some who have had good experiences.  But I haven’t given up on love.  They say you will meet someone when you least expect it.  It’s always nice to have a partner.  That is the highest compliment you can pay your partner who has passed because it means they gave you a wonderful example of what love SHOULD be.

In the meantime, someday if my husband and I do meet again in the hereafter, I have some funny stories to tell him.

 

 

 

Hearing Loss and Aging: Fact or Fallacy?

We’ve all been present at some time or another when someone makes a hurtful comment about hearing loss.  Often, these comments imply hearing loss and aging go hand in hand.

“The ears are the first thing to go, haha.” How many times have we heard this?

Sometimes we witness people imitating a nineteenth-century horn placed in the ear or cupping the ear imitating how we look when we struggle to hear.

Over the years, one of the main reasons I have heard friends or family give when they are resistant to getting help is the negative stereotype society has placed on wearing these devices.  We’ve all seen the advertisements claiming the manufacturer has the smallest device to offer, almost invisible!  Finally, the industry has realized that a plastic flesh-colored instrument still looks like a hearing aid.  Both the hearing aid and cochlear implant manufacturers have realized that many people really want something that is small or similar to mainstream Bluetooth devices.

Is there any truth that hearing loss is a sign of aging?  The short answer is sometimes.  Babies are born everyday who are deaf.  Sometimes, children who are born deaf have multiple disabilities, and sometimes being deaf is their only disability.

Let’s talk about the adult population.  Here are some interesting facts about hearing loss, disease and aging:

“Age-related hearing loss (presbycusis) is the loss of hearing that gradually occurs in most of us as we grow older.  It is one of the most common conditions affecting older and elderly adults.” (nidcd.nih.gov)

“A recent study found that hearing loss is twice as common in people with diabetes as it is in those who don’t have the disease.  Also, of the 86 million adults in the U.S. who have pre-diabetes, the rate of hearing loss is 30 percent higher than in those with normal blood glucose.” (diabetes.org)

“Studies have shown that a healthy cardiovascular system–a person’s heart, arteries and veins–has a positive effect on hearing.  Conversely, inadequate blood flow and trauma to the blood vessels of the inner ear can contribute to hearing loss.”  (better hearing.org)

Having a stroke may damage the areas of your brain related to hearing–this can cause hearing loss. (www.nhs.uk)

Dementia – Many of us who belong to the Hearing Loss Association of America (www.hearingloss.org), have had the opportunity to hear Dr. Frank Lin speak.  Dr. Lin, as an assistant professor at John Hopkins and an otologist and epidemiologist studies the effects of hearing loss in older adults.  According to an article in the January 15, 2015 Chicago Tribune, “A 2011 study of some 600 older adults found that those with hearing loss at the beginning of the study were more likely to develop dementia than adults with normal hearing.  In fact, the more severe the hearing loss, the more likely they were to develop dementia; volunteers with mild, moderate and severe loss were two, three and five times more likely to develop dementia than those with normal hearing. (chicagotribune.com)

I found this interesting because as we age, our metabolism slows down:   In a 2010 study, Shinichi Someya, et al  found that a caloric restriction extends the life span and health span of a variety and species and slows the progression of age-related hearing loss.  The study implies this may be true in mammals. (journals.plos.org)

There are other areas of our well being that hearing loss can affect.  Many people with hearing loss are isolated, depressed, lack socialization and connections, and all of these can affect our homeostasis.  As some of this research implies, the ear is not an isolated part of our being.

Finally, to get back to the beginning of this article which references jokes about the ears being the first thing to go, countless studies by health professional such as gerontologists, hospice workers and others will tell you at the end of life, hearing is the last sense to go.

“Most people with a terminal illness become unconscious in the last few hours or even days before death.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t know you are there.  Many palliative care and hospice professionals will tell you that hearing is often the last sense to go at the end of life. ” (m.webmd.com)

Well after your loved one can no longer speak, he or she can still hear you say, “I love you.”  (m.webmd.com)  I think that’s pretty amazing.

 

 

 

 

 

Women With Hearing Loss: Going It Alone

A couple of weeks ago, my neighbor “Margo” passed away.  Margo was in her nineties,  had a successful career in the corporate world, independently survived her husband by three decades and was still driving just a few months ago.

“She couldn’t hear, she was losing her vision and she was getting grumpy” was all a neighbor had to say about her when hearing of the news.

Was this Margo’s legacy after living in this complex for over five decades?  I knew her only surviving relative was a nephew who often sent her flowers.  She had outlived all of her relatives in her age group.

I walked past her apartment door and approached the elevator as men filled boxes with knick knacks and other mementos that probably only had value to her.  Atop the boxes of random items was an opened box of cornflakes.  What was her story?  Did the contents of those boxes tell a story about her life?

What I remember most about Margo was that she was friendly.  She remembered random facts about neighbors.  For instance, for five years, my mother was in a nursing home before she passed away.  Margo always remembered to ask me how she was doing.  She even went out and bought her a pretty sweater to wear in the nursing home.  Also, Margo had a relative who had been a professional opera singer, and she knew I like opera, so she would generate a conversation about our mutual love for the topic.  Word got out that sometimes in the afternoon Margo would get on the elevator and ride up and down and just greet neighbors getting their mail or returning from work.  But she was never imposing.  People liked her.  In the winter, neighbors would shovel out her car without her even asking for help.  Randomly, neighbors would ask her if she needed anything from the store or check to see if she was alright. Even the superintendent and porters were aware she may need a little extra help during an emergency.

Why did Margo’s passing make me ask so many questions?  Fifteen years ago this month, I was widowed after a marriage of 32 years.  I did not realize how much I relied on my husband to help me with phone conversations, to hear the doorbell or even to ensure I woke up in the morning.  Suddenly being on my own, I developed a strong admiration for women, all women, but especially women with hearing loss who rely on technology and others to ensure they are safe and tending to business in a timely way.  

Today, more than ever, there are many women on their own of all ages who are single, divorced or widowed.  Often, these women do not live with friends or relatives.  Apartment buildings are filled with women on their own, especially older women who may begin to experience their own decline.  One of the most common disabilities is hearing loss.

What are some of the things women on their own with hearing loss can do to protect themselves?

  1.  Make sure your complex has the name of next of kin or friends who will initiate action if something happens to you.  Make sure they have updated information including your doctor’s name and medicine you may take.
  2. If there is an emergency in your complex such as a fire, management may need to take extra measures to inform you and be sure you are safe.  Make sure they are informed ahead of time of your special needs.
  3. If you are taken to a hospital, make sure you have an advocate who will ensure you are hearing and understanding questions and directives.  Also, every hospital has a patient advocate if you need someone to help you. All too often, people with hearing loss bluff and are too embarrassed to say they missed instructions.
  4. Make sure you have smoke detectors, fire alarms and carbon monoxide monitors.  Many people with hearing loss do not hear at night when their hearing devices are off.  There are flashing devices and devices that vibrate to alert the person.  Many people do not know this, but many fire departments around the country supply these devices free of charge to persons with hearing loss. 
  5. Make sure at night, all hallways are well lit, throw rugs are securely in place, wires are not in a place that will make you trip.  You will rely on your eyes to compensate for what your ears don’t hear.
  6. Consider getting a service dog.  This is a big responsibility, but it may supply you with security and companionship.
  7. This one is just one of my own.  At night after turning off the lights, I keep the blinds slightly open.  Although I am on an upper floor, if an ambulance or a fire truck pull up in front of the complex, I will see the strobe light reflect on my ceiling. You may have your own little pointers such as where to position mirrors.

What have I learned from Margo?

  1.  When I moved to this complex seven years ago, I was experiencing one of the largest declines in my hearing.  I met so many neighbors at the pool, the gym or in the elevator who introduced themselves.  I was too embarrassed to admit I did not get their names.  Margo talked to everyone.  Although she missed chunks of conversation, she was never afraid to ask questions.
  2. Margo did not let her hearing loss isolate her.  She did her best to keep knowing everyone. Keeping connected is so important, especially as we get older.
  3. Margo stayed active for as long as she could in her church, clubs and social settings. She got her hair done once a week until the very end.
  4. Margo did not let anyone define her.

So when someone tried to define Margo by her failing hearing and eyesight or a bad day, I have to say he just didn’t know Margo.  If there is one thing those of us with disabilities learn as time goes on, it’s that if we don’t let these things destroy us or define us, we will come out ahead more resilient.  And Margo was one tough chick.   

 

 

 

 

 

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!