I’ve been on a trip. Remember those? A trip abroad, a business trip, a holiday? Now it might be better dubbed a guilt trip, as our excess baggage includes concerns about Covid and climate change, and whether taking teabags is a low blow to the local economy in our host country and a failure to embrace their cultural norms when it comes to hot beverages. 

Anticipating my first trip beyond the UK since the beginning of the pandemic had an unreal quality to it, so unaccustomed are we now to doing such things. This would also be my first time Travelling since having my cochlear implant (CI). But Estonia beckoned, as my eldest daughter and her partner are currently living there. 

The advice is to wait a month after CI surgery before flying, so we changed our plans and set off six weeks after my operation day. All I needed to do now was to have the right kit with me and to manage the journeys. 

The kit

I spared a thought for those with health conditions requiring large amounts of paraphernalia to manage them, feeling grateful that having a CI really doesn’t necessitate carrying a lot of kit. Just the drying box and battery charger with spare batteries, which need to be plugged in overnight, and so a multi-port travel plug adapter too. Advanced Bionics will provide a programmed spare set of the bits you wear on your head, as a holiday loan, but I didn’t feel the need to take this up, given that I could fall back on hearing with my hearing aid for the other ear. 

I’d need to carry in my hand luggage the parts I wasn’t wearing, to comply with flight rules, and wanted to keep them all together, not least in case airport security staff had any interest in examining them. The start-up CI package includes a carrying case, but it’s a strange item. It doesn’t take everything that’s needed and it’s so heavy! I dug out a zippered hearing aid case that was the exact size for the battery base and batteries and put this, the drying box, and cables into a lightweight pouch – much better.

I also had a letter provided by Advanced Bionics via the audiology department, explaining to airport staff what a CI means for the security process.

Special assistance?

‘Deaf’ is a recognised category for special assistance with airlines, which might include help with any of the stages from check-in to boarding and a separate safety briefing on the plane. I was flying out with Tim on a Ryanair flight and back on my own with Air Baltic. For the latter, I thought I’d better book the special assistance. Unsure whether this would be necessary or appropriate for our outward flight, I used Ryanair’s live chat facility (how I love having this option!) with the intention of finding out. However, the person at the other end of the chat didn’t depart from the script to engage with my question and just told me she’d booked it for me.

Stanstead Airport was horrible – all neon signs and a gazillion people milling around, manoeuvred by the relentless advertising into buying beer, burgers and bikinis (at 5 in the morning). “Why can’t there be plants and windows?” groaned Tim. Tallinn airport, by contrast, had plenty of both. There were even plants (maybe fake ones…) in the middle of the luggage carousels, and this nice little airport also provides a bookshop and a table tennis table, complete with a basket of balls and paddles. Like Estonia itself, Tallinn airport was thinly populated and altogether a refreshing contrast to the UK.

However, the Stanstead security people were cheerful and helpful, and they knew the score with CIs. Instead of going through the scanner, I adopted a scarecrow pose on a designated spot while some other kind of detector did its detecting, and that was that. On the plane, I waited for my personal safety briefing, but no-one approached me about it, and I kept quiet, feeling perfectly well-informed from watching the demo and reading the safety card. On my return journey, I was asked at check-in if I needed help through the airport, but decided I was fine going it alone. Again, the security people had seen it all before, giving me a pat-down in place of going through the scanner. No need for any kind of separate safety briefing on the plane, as it was provided for everyone through pictorial information on a screen and a card.

On previous trips, I have come unstuck at the point of boarding where an announcement has been made for groups of passengers to board according to seat number, but this wasn’t done on either of these flights. So, in the end, I hadn’t needed assistance, special or otherwise.

Background noise

It was a novel experience travelling on the London underground for the first time with my CI (and not wearing a hearing aid). It was so quiet! It’s impressive how much the CI damps down background noise and prioritises speech. The announcements on the plane were unintelligible (as I believe they are for many people with perfectly good hearing) but on the tube “The next station is…” and “Please mind the gap between the train and the platform edge” were clear. Ok, I know the script, but I was still impressed.

In a noisy, echoey restaurant in a group of seven people, I struggled to hear with either the CI alone or CI plus hearing aid. But switching on the hearing aid gave me much worse sound quality, and with the CI only the background noise was less and people’s speech brought more sharply into focus. I think this bodes very well for when I’m more used to hearing with it. I’m also looking forward to having the Roger Select accessory which should help even more by enabling me to select/deselect sound from particular directions.

Practicing with the CI

This was only my third week since the CI was activated, so early days, and I had to accept that it wasn’t practical to use it without the hearing aid much of the time. It was just too difficult to keep up with conversations, and especially when many of those were outdoors, often walking, or in public indoor spaces.

However, I made sure I used it on its own some of the time, and spent time each day doing the auditory training exercises on the Hearoes app. It was very handy to have something I could easily do on my phone, in a situation where I was travelling without a laptop.

I also took my attention to what I could hear with the CI only, and in lovely Kadriorg Park, Tallinn, on a beautiful day, I could hear leaves rustling underfoot, birds singing and the water lapping as we stood and looked out over the Gulf of Finland. In the university town of Tartu, the town hall clock struck as we stood below it and I could hear that. I had plenty of time to concentrate on it as three times a day it follows its hour chimes with a tune that lasts for a full three minutes! I have been told that making sense of music will come much later, but I could hear it as bells anyway.

Kadriorg Park, Tallinn
In Kadriorg Park, Tallinn

Taking stock

Back in my home environment, I was in a position to notice some small gains. I can now hear the kettle boiling, and the cat is sounding less like a robot and more like the noisy cat that he is. Particularly pleasing is that I can hear normal voices now. Though ‘Robbie the robot’ is still ever-present as a second, simultaneous voice, my brain prioritises the normal-sounding voice for my attention. This is true of all voices now, not just those I’m familiar with, as attendance at an online meeting today has demonstrated. I’m also appreciating the clarity that comes with streaming to my implant via Bluetooth. I’ve some way to go before I can follow discussions without lipreading, but I am getting some words and phrases – and that’s where practice comes in of course. Time for me to reacquaint myself with Angela, Margaret, Jay and crew in the Advanced Bionics Sound Success programme. Perhaps I’ll start with the section about G-O-I-N-G  O-N  H-O-L-I-D-AY.

Top photo of Tallinn by Karson on Unsplash. Kadriorg Park photos by me.