A few weeks ago a patient came in with a hearing aid that needed to be sent back to the manufacturer for repair. For this patient the simple thought of not having his hearing aid for even a few days was quite upsetting. I nodded and said to him that I understood his feelings. He looked at me quite puzzled, shook his head and said there is no way that I could understand his feelings because I don’t have a hearing loss and I don’t know what it’s like to not be able to hear. He was right.
That night over dinner my wife and I were discussing our days and I told her what this patient had said. To my amazement my wife agreed with the patient and said that I should stick something in my ears and try to walk around for a day not being able to hear. By George, I think she was on to something.
The next day I had one of my audiologists test my hearing. The quietest sounds that I could hear were right around 10 to 15 dB which is consideredto be “normal” hearing. I then pulled out a pair of custom ear protection that I wear well cutting the lawn, using power tools, shooting guns, etc. This time when the audiologist tested my hearing the quietest sounds I could hear were around 45 to 50 dB, which would be considered a “moderate” hearing loss. A few days later I scheduled myself not to see patients, just to do paperwork and a few short meetings.
As I got dressed the morning of my test I inserted my earplugs. While looking in the mirror, I became aware of a murmuring, turned and realized that it was my wife talking to me. Standing only a few feet away it was difficult to understand her voice. It was as if I was covering my ears with the palms of my hands. As we said our goodbyes I have to focus on what she’s saying – it becomes tiring almost immediately.
When I got to work, I sat down at my desk, clicked on iTunes and turned up the volume to a point where I could comfortably hear the music. While working, the bustle and noise of the office is blanketed out and I can concentrate on work far more easily. I think I’m doing pretty well until someone taps me on the shoulder telling me to turn down the radio because it’s too loud.
Some voices, I discover, are much harder to hear than others. It seems to have nothing to do with the pitch, or whether they are male or female.
In music they call the ‘color’ of a sound the timbre, and this quality seems to make the voices of my front office staff almost incomprehensible. Even when one staff member is speaking loudly I have to ask her to repeat herself (I’m not sure who is more irritated by this). “It’s going to be a long day,” deadpans one of the audiologists which, oddly, I can hear perfectly.
I continue to alternate between shouting and mumbling, much to everyone’s amusement, and by the mid-afternoon I’m not doing any better. Each time I walk out of my office I can see people talking but have a difficult time understanding what’s being said. It becomes far easier just to sit at my desk and keep to myself.
After work, my wife and I had dinner reservations at a local restaurant with a few of our friends. One friend complains in exasperation that “it’s like talking to my mother” and that “I have to talk so loud and there’s a delay before you answer.” I have to take a second or so to mentally process what he just said and it is exhausting.
When our food came I didn’t even want to eat. Every time I looked down at my plate I thought I was missing something that someone was saying. I was missing out on the jokes and subtleties of what was being said.
By the end of the meal, which takes a long time as I have to stop eating to concentrate fully to hear, I am completely drained from focusing so hard. I’m ready for this experiment to be over.
When I got home I took the dog out for a walk. I yanked out my earplugs, and everything is crystal clear – I can hear the crunch of my shoes on the wet pavement, the rustle of the leaves, cars in the distance. It’s such a relief.
It’s not dramatic or awful being a bit hard of hearing, but you do miss out on so much. Now that I’ve gone a day in my patients’ shoes, I have more empathy for them. But at the end of the day, I’m the lucky one because I can take out my earplugs and regain my hearing. Unfortunately my patients can’t.