“Beep beep!” I heard myself say to the driver as I got off the bus after my hospital appointment to have my new cochlear implant switched on. On the short walk home, I noticed the absence of nearly all sound, except some rather comforting traffic noise and some unidentifiable beeping as I walked – my hair near the microphone by my ear, perhaps, or maybe the wind. I met my husband Tim on the path. “Beep beep!” he said. “Beep beep!” said I.

If you’re hoping to read about happy tears, laughter, hearing this person or that thing for the first time, I’m going to disappoint you. It was Not At All Like That. Here’s how it went.

The switch-on

The person who gets to cut the ribbon, as it were, is the audiologist. Anna’s opaque mask precluded lip-reading (they’d run out of clear ones) but she had an iPad set up facing me, with a surprisingly accurate speech-to-text display, so that was fine. She had ready a small suitcase of kit with my name on it, and the first job was to find the correct strength of magnet for attaching the transmitter to my head, where there is a magnet under my scalp. Too strong and it pulls at the skin; too weak and the transmitter will fall off. 

That sorted, the programming of the implant via the computer began. Anna played beeps at different frequencies and I had to indicate when I could first hear them and when they reached the limit of comfort, in terms of volume. After a false start with losing the connection, we got through that. So far so good.

This is where we might expect a drum-roll, for I was about to hear speech with the implant for the first time. I had thought I was well-prepared. I had read that voices sound robotic, and for some time, until the brain adjusts. I wasn’t looking forward to that, but thought I was ready. But oh dear, I was not prepared for what I heard, which was tinny, high sounds that just seemed to be beeps. They had the rhythm of speech but I could not discern the words. “Beep beep beep” said Anna. “Beep beep” said I. I have to admit to being quite appalled and thinking ‘what have I done?’. But Anna assured me this was all normal at the start. So I pasted on a brave smile and gave her a thumbs up. Dammit though – this is clearly going to be much harder than I realised.

We packed up my troubles in my new kit bag and on I went to my appointment with Speech and Language Therapist, Ali.

An introduction to Auditory Training: fun and games?

Also aided by a speech-to-text display, Ali showed me an information sheet showing stages of progress when learning to hear with a cochlear implant. I’d already rolled a six to start, as it were, as the first step is to detect everyday sounds, and at least I was hearing something straight away. Some people only feel the sound at first, rather than hear it – perhaps those with much less hearing than me. 

The second step is discrimination, and this is where my exercises are starting. I listened as Ali read the numbers one to thirty – no lipreading but of course I knew what was coming next! She would pause and ask me to say the last number I’d heard. I was relieved to find that, tinny and robotic though it was, I could recognise those words. After doing the same with the days of the week and the months, Ali showed me the online auditory training I can do with Advanced Bionics (and the other cochlear implant companies have equivalent resources). I had a go at identifying short sentences being read out from a list of possibilities, with some small success and some abject failure. Well, I feel the only way is up. I’ve also got instructions to practice identifying words from a list when spoken to me by someone at home, and I have an auditory Bingo sheet, where I can mark of when I a) hear and b) recognise different sounds. 

Sound Bingo – how am I doing so far?

Wind – beeps.

Water running into the sink – beeps.

Cutlery into a drawer – beeps.

Footsteps – beeps.

Microwave beeps – beeps! 

Toilet flushing – beeps.

Tapping on keyboards – beeps.

Own breathing – are they kidding?

Cat purring – not with the implant, but I pressed my other ear to our cat and could hear him purring. Oh lovely sound! I didn’t know I could hear that without my hearing aid! He is the loudest cat in the world and I was pleased that his MIAAAAAAAOWWW was that, albeit a tinny and strange one, not BEEEEEEEEEEEP!

I seem to be hearing beeping a lot of the time, and maybe this is why I’ve now got a headache. But what about voices? So far, I have spoken to Tim and my daughters, one over FaceTime. Lip-reading, I have mostly followed what they’ve said. But oh it is hard not to hear their dear voices. However, I am told this should normalise so I must be hopeful and hard-working and do all I can to help my brain adjust.

Ali advised me to use my implant alone for as much time as possible, in the interests of rehabilitating as well and as speedily as possible (we’re talking months here but of course the gains will be gradual). I can use my hearing aid in the non-implanted ear when I really need to follow a conversation, as I will tomorrow when I go for an eye test. Ali told me that  in some places people’s hearing aids are taken away to force them to use the implant only. How appalling! Why would you do that?! Give us the information and let us make our choices.

Enough for one day

I’m too tired now to get the app I can use to control my implant, sort the Bluetooth connection between implant and phone, or to get to grips with all the kit. That can wait until tomorrow. All I need for tonight is to plug in the battery unit and the drying case which stores and dries the external parts of the implant overnight. I do remember Anna telling me I have to press the button twice to switch it on. What’s the betting it goes beep?!