Isn’t it great when hard work is rewarded? It seems that my efforts to learn to hear with my cochlear implant (CI) are bearing fruit and I’m seeing improvements every day. I wonder if this is a little honeymoon period. I know to expect months and months of slow, hard-won progress. But that needn’t stop me from noticing and celebrating the gains as and when they come. 

Mary Poppins was right

According to Mary, ‘in every job that must be done there is an element of fun”, and I am working hard at finding the fun in the auditory training exercises I must do every day if I am to see off my friend Robbie the robot (more about him in my last blog) at the earliest opportunity.

I am spending a great deal of time with Angela, Margaret and the rest of the speakers who deliver the Advanced Bionics Sound Success programme. They have to say very boring things S-L-O-W-L-Y and C-L-E-A-R-L-Y and I imagine that they too had to find an element of fun in recording the exercises for us. Things got livelier this week as I graduated to the more advanced stuff where they pair up to have S-L-O-W and frankly W-E-I-R-D conversations about imaginary dinner parties and train trips against fake backgrounds. I swear you can see their mouths twitch with suppressed merriment and that Jay has a definite twinkle in his eye, although I only turn the video on if I really can’t make out the words by listening only. Anyway, I am making good progress here, which also helps to offset the tedium of the exercises. 

I’ve also been spending a good bit of time using the Hearoes app, which gives a good range of auditory training exercises with the bonus of little animations. Get a word right and the balloon or boat moves across the screen, or the rocket avoids annihilation by asteroids. I am not into computer games, and anyone who is would undoubtedly scoff at the simplicity of the graphics, but I find I like these (admittedly tiny) rewards! This app also gives clear and immediate feedback on what the exercise is testing and what my successes and failures are. Am I hearing ‘neat’ or ‘meat’? How many syllables can I hear and which is stressed? Which city/household/farmyard noise is playing (I’m hopeless at that) and is this sound a lower or higher pitch than the one that just played? I’m delighted to find that I can now tell if the sound is a higher pitch, though not yet if it’s lower.

I’ve had my first session with Emma, a speech and language therapist, via video call. Emma put Tim and I through our paces of Tim reading a word or phrase from a list while concealing his mouth but not blocking the sound, and me repeating what I hear. I did quite well aside from not being able to hear “fire”; after several fruitless repetitions Tim added “don’t panic!” and it finally made sense!

Line of beauty

At my first implant tuning (or mapping) session this week, I also had the kind of hearing test that determines what the quietest sound is that you can hear at different frequencies, plotting the results on a graph or audiogram. It’s a long, long time since I could hear anything at the level of the sunlight uplands of the upper part of the chart and over the years I have watched my lines on the audiogram slide down towards the silent boglands at the bottom. As I pressed the button whenever I heard a beep, I was aware of the audiologist’s eyebrows going up and she gave some confirmatory nods. “It’s good”, she said, “very good”. Indeed it is. Current NICE guidance states that people who can only hear sounds louder than 80 decibels (kitchen blender sort of level) may be considered for a cochlear implant and, while hearing aids were helping, my graph was still looking a sorry thing. Now I have a rather astonishing line, showing that with my cochlear implant, across most of the tested frequencies, I am hearing sounds as quiet as 25 decibels – that’s as quiet as someone whispering! I keep looking at it, just to admire it again and wonder at the technical marvel that has enabled this.

It’s important, though, to stress that this isn’t the equivalent of waving a wand and I’m hearing everything again. Rather, this is a foundation on which my brain must build. The information it’s getting is different from that delivered by normal hearing mechanisms. It has to make sense of the new stimuli as sound, for me to have better functional hearing than before. That will take time and practice.

Getting technical

It was only when I talked to Emma, the speech and language therapist, that I realised that whilst I knew that the audiologist had added another programme to my implant during my appointment on Monday, I didn’t know when/how I was supposed to use it! A little plea to audiologists here to remember that there is so much that’s new to CI recipients and that we need clear instructions about what to do with this technology! We may also be only half hearing what you tell us!

At this point, I experimented with essentially upping the volume via the app, again grateful for smartphone technology. I’ve also successfully connected my CI to the laptop and tv via Bluetooth – fancy! I did my weekly online Pilates class and for the first time ever was able to follow a lot of the verbal instruction, much of it with no lipreading.  Amazing! 

I used it in the office one day this week, the first time a group of us had gathered there since March 2020. We were socially distanced in a very large and echoey space and while I could use the CI only for a one-to-one conversation in a quiet part of it, it was mostly too difficult, and I resorted to using my hearing aid too. This is where I need the Roger Select, a piece of kit that can be good for group situations, allowing you to choose which speaker(s) to pick up on and damping down background noise.

The next adventure?

A week abroad! Well that feels terribly novel, as my first trip beyond the UK since 2019, with the added adventure of travelling with my new CI. I will report back!