User Stories

My Cochlear Implant Story: The First Sounds I Heard

This is the second post from Claire Stancliffe, a MED-EL cochlear implant recipient. In her last post she introduced her childhood with hearing loss and now her cochlear implant story continues with the first months after she received a cochlear implant.

First of all, I would like to say a big thank you if you read my first blog. This one will explain what happened at my switch on appointment and how I dealt with the big change after.

After my cochlear implantation operation, I had a post-op appointment to check the wound was healing correctly. All was well and after about 3 weeks it had completely healed and the scar wasn’t very noticeable. During this time I wasn’t allowed to wear my hearing aid in the implanted ear due to risk of infection. This was quite a struggle, as for the past 19 years I had worn two hearing aids every day. Even with just one hearing aid everything sounded differently and it was incredibly tiring to lip read. Thankfully I wasn’t working for several months so I could recover from the operation and adjust to the implant.

Claire’s Cochlear Implant First Fitting

Then in the middle of March, 2012, it was time for my audio processor activation.

As I had spoken to several friends who had been through the process of receiving a cochlear implant, my expectations were very low. They had told me how at the start it is very difficult and that what you hear won’t sound natural. Therefore my way of dealing was this was to expect nothing and deal with whatever happens as it comes.

I was asked to remove my hearing aid in my other ear, and was told that it would be a very good idea to leave it out until my next appointment. Alarm bells started ringing in my head as I thought “how am I going to cope with no hearing aids?” Then my audiologist started to connect everything up and put the processor in the right position. He explained everything that was going to happen and he finally switched on the implant for the first time.

As soon as he switched it on I could hear some slight noise. This was just background noise from computers and air conditioning systems. Mark started to speak to me, asked me if I could hear him, and asked what exactly I could hear.

It’s very difficult to explain what I heard. I knew he was talking from reading his lips, but the sound wasn’t natural at all. Many people describe it as a beeping. To me it was just the sound of speech but in a very quiet and deep tone. All noise was in the same tone.

Mark decided to do a little experiment. I had to stay where I was sat whilst he stood about 2 metres behind me and made a ‘shhhh’ sound. If I heard this I had to raise my hand. He started with the very quietest sound, and to his and my mother’s surprise my hand went straight up. It was such a clear noise to me that it was almost like he was next to me. If this was done with my hearing aids in there’s no way I would have heard it.

For the first appointment they didn’t want to do too much to the processor, so Mark just tuned it correctly so I could have a lunch break and get used to the first step. An external remote was set up so I could change the volume or sensitivity of the processor in case the canteen was too noisy.

Lunch was rather difficult as I had no hearing aids and had just had my implant switched on. All of a sudden I couldn’t hear anything. I used the remote to turn the volume up, but there was still nothing. I started panicking and saying to my mother that I couldn’t hear anything.

I explained what happened and Mark started to change a few things on the process. I could hear sounds again. He explained to me that my brain had gotten used to the sounds from the first tuning and it was time for some more turning. He explained that he didn’t want to change things too soon, that the tuning should be done gradually, and therefore he set up four different programmes which I could control with my remote. When I was used to one program, then I could move up to the next one.

The First Months With a Cochlear Implant

I found the next few weeks very difficult. I just wanted to put my hearing aid back on just to have some relief. I just wanted to take the implant off. At this time, bed time was my favourite part of the day because I could switch off and just be in peace. In the mornings every time I put the implant on it scared me as everyday noise was so loud but I knew I had to persevere. I had to stay positive: as people said to me, it takes time to adjust.

I also knew a very important thing post-activation is rehabilitation. My rehabilitation in the first couple of weeks involved my mother saying single words whilst I had my eyes closed. The majority of the time I got them wrong. But, as time went on, I recognised more words. After several weekly appointments and tuning sessions my rehab changed from words to sentences. I had actually progressed rather quickly.

Now, over two years later, sounds now are very natural. Turning the implant on doesn’t scare me, and background noise is just simply background noise and doesn’t tend to interfere in quiet situations.

If you’ve just received a cochlear implant, your brain needs time to adjust and learn how to deal with sounds. It is a slow process but I can’t express enough how grateful I am to be given the opportunity to have a cochlear implant. Yes, at the start it is incredibly hard, but hard work and having the determination to keep going will reap rewards. The implant has improved my quality of hearing so much, I regret not having the operation when I was younger.

(As a side note, in a comment on my first blog post somebody had asked why I still play for an international deaf team when I have an implant. Please do remember implants are not a cure for deafness. Once the implant is switched off or removed I am still profoundly deaf. In international football competitions such as Deaflympics, implants or any hearing devices must be removed before entering the field of play.)

Claire’s cochlear implant story continues on the MED-EL Blog next month, when she will talk about the new and different sounds she’s experienced since receiving her cochlear implant.

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