“It’s getting better all the time” (“better, better, be…..tter!” as The Beatles had it) sums up both the march of progress in cochlear implant (CI) technology and my personal experience of learning to hear with my implant – now six months since switch-on.
The Marvel, one year on
When I was discussing choices with my surgeon, a year, ago, he told me that in Oxford they offer CI candidates a choice of two manufacturers/developers/wizards, but that they are as good as each other. When one introduces something new, the other will be quick to follow, and I imagine this is the case across the multiple companies who develop CI technology. I chose to go with Advanced Bionics, who had just introduced a new sound processor, the Marvel.
The sound processor is an external part of the CI, sitting behind the ear, and this is where much of the magic happens. All being well, the parts that have been put into my head during surgery should last for life, but every five years implant recipients in the UK are given an upgrade to the latest sound processor. I was fortunate to receive this very new technology, the Marvel, as my first sound processor.
The Marvel is well named. I am certainly marvelling at its operating system – Autosense 3.0. This makes automatic adjustments according to the environment you’re in to give you the best hearing experience. It analyses the sounds around you every 0.4 seconds and uses artificial intelligence to automatically activate the most suitable mix of settings, programmes and features. It’s quite mind-blowing. What a far cry from just amplifying all sound, which is what my pre-digital hearing aids did, and it’s surely a leap on from my most recent pre-implant hearing aids too. A benefit of this that I discovered in the very early weeks after switch-on was the clarity of speech in a noisy environment – like the London Underground. I’m continuing to discover the benefits as I get better at hearing with my CI and have the chance to test it out in an expanding range of situations.
I wrote my last blog when I had just been given a hearing aid for the other ear. I’m getting used to it and find that the aid plus CI is better than the CI alone. But the hearing aid is very much the poor relation and I sometimes leave it out to give my ear a break from the mould.
But enough of the tech; how is this working out in practice?
A return to socialising
It’s brilliant finding I can hear people with increasing ease, and very noticeable when I meet people whose voices I’ve especially struggled with in the past (low and soft) and find I can hear them better. I’ve also been experiencing some ‘firsts’ – not just firsts with the CI but also firsts since the start of the pandemic. I’m curious to see how I manage in different listening environments after a long break and newly equipped to deal with them.
Cafes and restaurants are environments likely to fill those of us with hearing loss with dread. We’re there for the company and conversation but challenged by a multitude of sounds, including a cacophony of conversations, background (?) music, the clatter of cutlery and the noise of the coffee machine. My social self was always delighted at the prospect of a meal out, forgetting the reality that actually it was so hard for me to hear that the experience wasn’t the lovely thing it should have been – and at times was excruciating.
For months I have been enjoying being able to hear conversation in cafes thanks to my CI’s capacity to damp down the background noises, and I’ve now had two successful meals out in restaurants. One was in an almost empty restaurant but being able to hear any and all of the group of seven people I was with was impressive, nonetheless. The next time, arriving with Tim ahead of my sister and aunt, I remarked that I hoped the restaurant stayed so quiet. It really isn’t, he said, there’s background music! Well I hadn’t noticed that at all, though I could tune into it, once he pointed it out. No longer the deafest person round the table, I tried to speak clearly for my aunt, moving so I wasn’t backlit; Tim too now struggles to hear more than I do in these environments.
My first theatre trip since 2019 and something of a challenge, as it was a piece of musical theatre, Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera ‘HMS Pinafore’, performed at Wilton’s Music Hall (so beautifully restored). I’d made up my mind I wouldn’t fret if I couldn’t hear it. I’d seen ‘Pirates of Penzance’ by the same company at Wilton’s three years ago and hadn’t been able to hear the words, but it was all very visual, I knew some of the songs, and all in all I’d had a thoroughly good time. This time, I heard a large proportion of the words, and the tunes sounded right too. Hurrah!
Back in a church building today for the first time in over two years, I found the echoing space less than ideal acoustically but gone is the necessity to lip read everything. I could hear most of what was said, the music was recognisable, and it was easy to exchange a few words with people on my way out. Lovely!
Streaming via Bluetooth
The Marvel has built-in Bluetooth connectivity, so I can stream directly from my phone or laptop to my ears, and I’m using this all the time – not yet for phone calls (I need to remember to practice this) but for zoom calls, webinars and listening to podcasts. I’ve discovered that the CI gives me a superpower, beyond ‘just’ being able to hear without lipreading or subtitles (and I find this astonishing every time): I can move about the house, walk away from the laptop, say, and make a cup of tea, with no disruption to the clarity of the sound. Better than normal hearing in this respect!
Speech and Language Rehabilitation Review
Six months on from switch-on, it was time to repeat the tests I did with a speech and language therapist before surgery. My scores for hearing sentences without lipreading had increased from 46% to 80% – and I think this reflects what I’m experiencing, hearing the majority of what’s said (and sometimes very much more than 80%) but not all of it. Great progress, with some room for improvement still. As for my score on the Hearing Handicap Questionnaire, which measures my perception of the impact of my hearing loss on daily activities, that’s improved from 56% to 25% (a lower score means less difficulty experienced). Speech perception skills will be measured again in the autumn, and I’ll be interested too to find out where I’ve got to in terms of the speed at which I can process speech – important for understanding conversation.
I am hearing everyone and everything, everywhere and with more ease than Before, more so as the weeks go on, and with less and less reliance on lipreading. It really is getting so much better all the time!