In 1963, when I lost my hearing, my doctor said, "Don't ever let anybody operate on your ears." He said that some day scientists would develop the technology to bypass the cochlea and send sound directly to the auditory nerve, and that this would work for me. He also said, "You'll probably read about it first in the Readers' Digest."
What the doctor was describing in the early 60s is today's cochlear implant. I've never read about it in the Readers' Digest (which I generally don't read at all). But because I work in publishing related to deafness, I've read plenty about cochlear implants since the first ones were manufactured and implanted. I even wrote a review of Beverly Biderman's fine book WIRED FOR SOUND in the September/October 1999 issue of Perspectives:
I'm talking about this because a week ago, I went to the Listening Center at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore for a preliminary qualification interview, the first step in applying for a cochlear implant. Not everyone who wants to get a cochlear implant is a good candidate for one. If you wear properly fitted hearing aids and still miss more than half of the words, that's one qualification. If you can pay attention, solve problems, and remember things, that's another one. The psychological evaluation is necessary because doctors have learned that hearing with a cochlear implant is an emotional experience, too. If you have heard before (you're late deafened), what you hear with a cochlear implant may be sufficiently weird and different to be disappointing and upsetting. One recipient said, "Everyone sounds like Daffy Duck!" It takes months if not years to LEARN TO HEAR again with a cochlear implant. I know that--and I've always been able to understand Daffy Duck, no problem. I don't have any objections to this intellectually, but how I'll feel about it may be another matter.
Ryan, the young audiologist who interviewed me, reminds me a lot of my grandson Joe--he's smart and has a lively, gentle sense of humor. He said the quality of my speech told them I passed one of the most important basic requirements: my hearing nerve itself is still in good shape. Even though for years doctors have classified me as having "nerve deafness," that term is a misnomer. What makes me deaf is that my hair cells have been destroyed, not my hearing nerve.
He then asked me why I wanted a cochlear implant. I said that I thought it would be wonderful to hear my young grandchildren's voices. The older ones, Ian and Sean, have become much easier to hear now that their voices have deepened. But that leaves Joe, Sam, George, Annie, and Claire whose normal speech is out of range most of the time. I also said I'd like to be able to hear birds again. Or crickets...leaves rustling in the wind
Next Ryan took me into the sound booth to test how well I can hear with hearing aids when I'm not lipreading (another misnomer...it's really SPEECHreading, since there are many more clues than just what's provided by the lips). As he read one sentence after another and I couldn't understand any of it, I laughed. It was pretty funny, actually; it sounded as if he'd taken all the familiar sounds of English and scrambled them into a new language. He said, "Just take a guess and tell me any of the words you can understand"--still nothing. Finally he said something that sounded vaguely familiar, so I said "Bees! You were talking about bees!" Wrong. The interpreter who was in the sound booth with me said later he'd said "Please pass the meat." For the one other thing that sounded vaguely familiar, and which I identified as "carrots," I was way off the mark. The interpreter said, "I don't know how you got "carrots" out of that one."
The end result was that he said I was a very good candidate for a cochlear implant. I have two more interviews coming up in early January: with the surgeon and with the audiologist again. I also need to schedule an appointment with a shrink for a psychological evaluation interview. Ha. That's easy. I've always been nuts. I can tell them that now.