Reflections on Waking Up with Hearing Loss

August 5 is a day I won’t soon forget. It’s the day I woke up with hearing loss.

First, if you’ll permit me, a little background: I’ve been an audiologist for going on 20 years. I am the owner of Amdahl Hearing in Minnesota. I’d been around long enough to think I knew a few things about hearing loss. But nothing prepared me for this.

I woke up on Monday morning feeling a little off — kind of heavy in my left ear. The week before, I had been installing a video otoscope, a device that allows an audiologist to display the image of a patient’s ear canal and eardrum on a computer screen, in one of our offices. It’s a great tool for helping patients understand how their ears work. While installing the otoscope, I had looked in my own ear to make sure all was working as it should. What I found was that I had a pretty significant buildup of cerumen (earwax) in my left ear. It’s not that uncommon, so I just made a mental note to get it removed. With that in mind, I assumed that the feeling in my left ear was simply the wax finally occluding (plugging) my ear canal. So I hopped in the shower with a wax-removal syringe and did what I’ve told my patients to do a thousand times: I irrigated my left ear with water. After putting about a gallon of water through the syringe and my ear canal, a sizeable piece of wax dropped out. Success!

Except I still couldn’t hear very well

I assumed there was a bit more wax in there than I had anticipated, so I ran another gallon or so of water through my canal…and nothing. At this point I was getting mildly concerned. I got ready as usual and started the coffeepot. As I was getting ready, I heard a beeping sound coming from the living room. Wondering what it was, I looked around only to find nothing. As I returned to the kitchen, I realized that the noise had come from the coffeepot, which was in the opposite direction from where I had thought I heard it. Getting a bit more concerned, I got into the car and got on my weekly phone call meeting with my management staff (hands-free; my phone emits sound through my car speakers). I could hardly understand a word. I maxed out the volume and faked my way through the meeting.

Not good

Once at the office, I used the otoscope to look into my left ear and found no wax. The audiologist in my head said, “Not good.” I proceeded from my office to the test booth. First I tested the right ear, which was normal, then the left. The readings were normal in the low-pitch range (like low notes on the piano), but they dropped off to a moderately severe hearing loss in my left ear.

I ran a quick couple of checks to see if, by chance, I had a bit of an ear infection. Negative. Since I had a hearing aid on hand to use for demonstration purposes, I quickly programmed it to my loss. It was like someone turned the light back on. I couldn’t believe how much better it was, as the loss I was experiencing was something many people have told me “isn’t that bad.”

Off to a specialist

At this point, I was very concerned and did what I had instructed my patients to do just one week earlier on a weekly radio show: In the case of a sudden hearing loss, get to a specialist as soon as possible. I was able to make an appointment, and I stopped to talk to some of my staff to update them on my situation and go over some things we needed to do that day. I had to have each of them repeat themselves. I had to really concentrate and look at each person in order to hear them. If two people were talking at once, I couldn’t follow. At the doctor’s office, when the nurse called my name, she sounded far off to my right, even though I was looking directly at her.

The otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat doctor) prescribed medication that is often given to people with sudden hearing loss, and I am happy to report that as I write this on August 7, my hearing has returned to normal

I consider myself very lucky

This experience has taught me a lot about how precious our senses truly are. As I reflect on my own experience, I am reminded how important it is to get in to see a specialist as soon as possible anytime sudden hearing loss occurs. Time is truly of the essence in these situations.

The other part of my experience, to me, is even more important. Keep in mind, I had a moderate hearing loss in my left ear only; my right ear was perfectly normal. Over the course of that day, I had issues hearing and understanding on the phone, I had difficulty understanding the radio, I misunderstood my staff, I struggled hearing in a small group, and I was unable to localize where sounds were coming from. I found myself feeling frustrated, worried that I had missed something important, and irritated that people were not speaking appropriately. I did not participate fully in a meeting because I wasn’t sure what we were talking about. I didn’t want to ask anyone to repeat for fear of looking foolish. And I was frightened to think my condition was permanent.

Even temporary hearing loss is a big deal

I had to deal with hearing loss in one ear for about a day. While I’ve always thought I could understand how it feels to be hearing impaired, I was wrong. I can tell you that any amount of hearing loss, even in one ear, is a big deal. I was amazed at the impact it had on my ability to communicate with people and to connect with my staff. I felt so isolated.

Help is available

If you are reading this, I hope you never have the experience that I did. If you believe you may have a hearing loss, or if you have been tested and told you have some hearing loss, I strongly urge you to get help. If you have a family member or friend who you suspect has a loss, talk to them. There is help available. And believe me, it’s worth it!

Kevin Amdahl

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