On Thursday morning, I sat in an examination room. I was in Albany for my pre-operation appointment, the final time seeing my doctor before the cochlear implant surgery. While waiting, I looked at a faded piece of paper on the wall that had been framed. The document was titled “The Top Ten Things I Can Hear.” In a child’s handwriting, the list included astonishing items (to me, anyway) like “my neighbor talking to me from across the street” to phrases that made me laugh such as “my sister’s loud chewing.” I felt grateful. I was even daydreaming career options for myself in audiology, picturing myself helping a child like the creator of the document on the wall. I was at peace.
And then the surgeon came in. This was not our first meeting, so I should not have been surprised by the doctor’s lack of bedside manner. He is known for being a reputable surgeon, after all; I don’t know what possessed me to think that a warm-and-fuzzy, social worker-version of him would be entering the room. But I did.
I think he said hello, but within seconds, he was dryly reciting a checklist of surgical risks, and I was not at all prepared. His lack of emotion left me rather unemotional. I’m not used to feeling an absence of connection with a person I am talking to, let alone, the person who will be drilling a hole in my head in less than a week. I wondered, did he understand my responsibilities as a wife and mother and my ambitions as a professional? Was he seeing ME? Didn’t he want to get to know ME?
In the next fifteen minutes, additional information was presented that caught me off guard. The surgeon and I had a brief discussion of disturbing (though very rare) side effects such as FACIAL PARALYSIS (SCARY), but mostly, we discussed the natural deafness that would fill my right ear.
“Now, you’re prepared,” he began, “to have no hearing left on your right side.”
I responded, “Well, I thought there was a chance some of my natural hearing would remain… I’ve heard it can happen.”
The emotionless expression remained on the surgeon’s face and he told me that while some recipients report having residual hearing, I should not expect to keep mine. Funny how I panicked over the extremely rare threat of facial paralysis and yet I had been so assured that I would defy the odds regarding residual hearing. I realized that my thinking up to that point had been jaded by these expectations that my surgery would somehow be exceptional—that I would wake up with my 20% natural hearing untouched, though every other recipient I’ve met had lost most or all of theirs. I hadn’t truly believed that my right ear’s hearing would go away, never to return, until that moment.
Before the surgeon and I parted, I asked him if I would be seeing the audiologist. He told me it wasn’t necessary during the pre-op unless I needed to talk to her for a specific reason. It was then I realized that another expectation for my surgery was not going to happen.
It hit me like a ton of bricks. The pre-op appointment is with the surgeon, discussing the incision, the pain medication… basically all that the surgery involves. Why did I think the post-op would be any different?
On the way out, I asked the nurse the question I already knew the answer to.
“So when I come to the post-op appointment, I won’t be getting activated that day?”
“Oh no,” she laughed. “You have to heal first! You won’t be getting activated until maybe, three weeks after the surgery. But don’t worry—you’ll be hearing by summer!”
In a period of thirty minutes, I truly realized I would be deaf on one side, and also that the weeks following the surgery would be much different than I initially anticipated. Driving out of the parking lot, my mind was racing. I had been prepared for 6 days un-activated, but three whole weeks or more? How would I get through my daughter’s birthday party? I was so looking forward to hearing in church during my son’s first communion, and now I wouldn’t hear anything! How would I tutor? Baseball games, dance lessons… how was I going to do this?
It is thirteen highway exits from Albany to my husband’s office building, and I called him to see if he could meet me in the parking lot. When the passenger door of my car opened and I looked in his eyes, I knew he understood why I unexpectedly drove there at 11 AM. I was scared. So much, that I wasn’t thinking clearly and even began doubting my decision.
"What if he hits a nerve," I wailed, mascara running down my cheeks, "And I have facial paralysis... you promise you'll love me even if I have a droopy face?"
"That's not going to happen, but if it did Pam, yes, I'll still love you."
We went on this way for awhile, me providing a terrible what-if scenario and then Jeff responding that it wasn’t going to happen. My stress was all the more escalated because of my disappointment regarding post-surgery, and my emotions were running wild. The tears had grown out of control, and any rational thinking was now replaced with uber-dramatic dialogue.