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It's been a tough 9 months, but let's get started again
Special to The Seattle Times
If you've noticed this column's absence since August, please know I've missed writing it. My life was out of control for some months, and I owe you an explanation.
In fact, a pretty full explanation was published on The Seattle Times Health page Wednesday. So, I'll summarize here by noting that in mid-August I caught a bad cold, fell into a coma and woke up eight days later with bacterial meningitis.
I was totally deaf, couldn't see out of one eye and couldn't sit up, never mind walk. But I was still alive, and that's more than some doctors predicted.
For the next three months, I stayed at the transitional-care unit at Foss Home in North Seattle. There, intravenous antibiotics killed the microscopic bugs messing up my left eye so that I could see with both eyes again.
Daily tests checked other potential problems, and physical therapy helped me relearn to walk. By December, I was well enough to come home and take the next steps toward recovery.
Relearning how to hear (with technology) has been the biggest step.
For several months, I experienced what it's like to be totally deaf. People "talked" to me by writing on a little white board, and that became my main communication tool.
Having zero natural-hearing capacity made me eligible for a high-tech cochlear hearing system that involves surgically implanting a microchip and 22 wire electrodes behind my ear and threading them through my now-defunct inner ear to the auditory nerve.
The outside parts include an over-the-ear processor that digitizes incoming sound and sends it through an attached disk to the inside processor. The sound is then distributed to the implanted electrodes that go to the auditory nerve and then to the brain.
The part that gives one pause is a cochlear system like mine costs upward of $40,000 to $50,000, including surgery, doctors' fees, medications, follow-up adjustments and lessons on how to use it.
I'm also lucky to have a team of excellent doctors and other medical professionals at Group Health and Virginia Mason Medical Center.
Surgery was just before Christmas and, two weeks later, I went to get the outside parts of the system and begin learning to hear again.
The audiologist connected my hearing device to her computer and played a number of sounds to determine my range of audible sounds, from lowest to highest pitch, and my comfortable volume range.
She fiddled a bit more with her computer and suddenly the magic began.
At first, I heard a mass of random sounds; gradually, the sounds evolved into recognizable words. For the first time in months, I could hear actual sentences.
I left her office feeling my life had begun again and was eager to learn everything, right now. However, I soon realized learning to hear again would take time, especially if I want to become an expert.
Weekly visits to the audiologist have helped. I'm a willing student because using this device is the only way I'll be able to hear for the rest of my life.
After practicing with the basic system for a while, I was ready to learn how to use other devices, including telephones, cellphones, music players, televisions and more.
Here's what I've learned so far:
When I want to listen to music on my iPod, I use a special cable to connect the iPod to the outside processor, which enables me to hear my 500 stored songs pretty well.
When I want to use a cellphone or home phone, I put my processor on the telecoil setting.
More often, I simply hold the phone's receiver over my outside processor, or I use the speakerphone.
There's usually more than one solution for hearing with external devices, so I experiment to find what works best for me.
The downside is this hearing system (like any other) doesn't match the quality of natural hearing. Music doesn't sound as rich and full as before. When talking to people, I have to face them to hear what they're saying.
Plus, my hearing device hangs over my right ear, so it's hard to hear what's being said on my left.
Dinner parties are particularly difficult, especially if I'm sitting in the middle of a row of people on one side of the table. I can hear those close to me on the right, but not the left, if I haven't turned around to face them.
It's particularly awkward when I notice that no one is talking on my right, so I start talking, but then discover someone on my left is already talking. After one or two mess-ups, I've gotten better at remembering to look both ways before talking.
Hardest of all is learning to ignore extraneous noises so that they don't interfere with my ability to hear the human voices I want to hear.
These "background" noises are sometimes hard to identify; yet, recognizing them often makes it a little easier to block them out.
For example, our microwave oven sounds like a baby crying. When I walk into stores with music playing on multiple speakers, it feels like an assault. Driving on a busy highway is also deafening, especially when there are concrete walls on both sides. There is still much for me to learn.
(Update: I've managed to banish the microwave's incessant crying, and other background sounds are fading, too. Color me hopeful.)
Meningitis is a serious disease that affects the brain, and I'm extremely lucky that mine is now functioning pretty well.
Still, I have had to relearn a few other things, including some of the technology I'd learned just before falling ill — such as how to use my Nikon DSL camera and Photoshop editing software.
It's arguably easier to learn skills the second time, but frustrating to have to take the time to learn what I'm supposed to know already.
So, in some ways, I'm Getting Started again, and by going through the relearning process, maybe I can be of more help to you. This is my first column back, and my 244th column since it started in 2000.
I'm finally ready to face technology that's helpful and fun, and maybe even technology that won't work, or seems too hard to tackle.
So, let's get started. Again.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company