“Would you rather be deaf or blind?” I asked my young ESL students, to spark conversation. Most surprise me by saying they’d rather be blind.
“I’d be lonely if I couldn’t hear my mom’s voice,” one boy told me.
“And my mom was lonely because she couldn’t hear me,” I thought.
Last September I noticed a prolonged sensation of stuffiness on the right side of my head but didn’t think much of it, assuming allergies or a cold. But another symptom soon developed, an acute sensitivity to sound. Even emptying the dishwasher was an assault on my right eardrum: a thunderous clink of plates against mates.
My boyfriend called one Saturday and I heard his voice, tinny and faint, in my right ear. Switching to the left side, Josh sounded normal. I hightailed it to urgent care; my tires on the asphalt roared like a fighter jet. Sound sensitivity, I learned, is a paradoxical feature of sudden hearing loss. My situation was treated as a medical emergency and I swallowed a round of oral steroids that week. An auditory test showed significant loss on my right side, leaving me anxious and baffled. I’m earplugged when I hear live music, use the blender or blow dry my hair. I stick fingers in my ears when passing a leaf blower on the street. My fear of deafness is driven by mother’s hearing loss. I don’t take my aural apparatus for granted.
I discovered it’s rare but possible to wake up completely deaf with no warning, either in one or both ears. WebMD informed me that it’s possible Covid-19 can be the culprit, as can Eustachian tube tumors. I tested negative for Covid antibodies. I hoped for a tumor, of the benign variety, something that could be surgically abolished. The MRI showed nothing. Meanwhile my new buddy tinnitus began to torture me. A nurse told me the next step was to inject my eardrum with steroids.
“That sounds awful,” I said.
“It is,” she replied.
At Kaiser my new otolaryngologist introduced herself, careful to enunciate the word “doctor” before her name. Maybe it’s because she looked 16, like a female Doogie Howser. Dr. Teenager gently explained that hearing aids don’t usually work with my kind of hearing loss. She administered the first in a series of three shots, which felt like an icepick and sent my brain spinning. I spent thirty minutes immobilized in a chair with my head tipped. I didn’t swallow but spit in a cup, to ensure the steroids saturated my eardrum. Afterwards it seemed my skull might shatter and I cried when I got to my car. Two more shots to go.
There’s little chance the steroids will work. I worry my other ear will be similarly affected, that I might actually be deaf someday.
“I’ll learn sign language for you,” Josh told me inside a hug. Even if he was teasing it was a nice thing to say. But mastering Spanish has been daunting enough and if he learns ASL I’ll also have to, otherwise what’s the point?
“I’ll just read your lips,” I say.
I told the doctor about my mom, how she began to lose her hearing in her fifties, how she struggled with hearing aids, how phone conversations became more difficult each year. I worried about her, more isolated after Dad died, in a country where loneliness is epidemic. She ended up facing cancer mostly alone, near-deafness creating distance when she most needed connection.
“She may have had scarlet fever as a kid, which can impair hearing later in life,” the doctor opined. Another specialist told me my own problem could be due to the herpes virus, namely the dormant chickenpox that’s been lurking in my body since third grade.
I won’t know until September, a full year since onset, just how significant the loss is. I’m not sure if I’d rather be deaf or blind, but I do know I appreciate music a lot more these days.
New Jersey born, Tess Kelly is an ESL teacher, writer and free-lance editor who lives in Portland, Oregon.