I refused to consider a cochlear implant when I was a kid. My parents remember getting articles about the surgery from friends and family; it was a new surgery back then, approved for children by the FDA in 1990, the year we found out I had lost my hearing from the antibiotics used to treat my pneumonia. I was 4.
But it was a new technology, a new surgery. A surgery. My family’s not huge on surgeries and medical interventions unless they’re necessary, and this one didn’t seem to be; after all, I was talking, lipreading, doing well in school even if I kept my hearing aids in my tiny elementary-school pockets more than my ears. Why drill a hole in my skull when I was at the top of my class and learning voraciously through reading reams and reams of books to get the information that I couldn’t hear?
When I got older and the topic came up again, my answer was a flat-out no: I wanted music. Cochlear implant users lost a lot of resolution; harmonic relationships got distorted, music reportedly sounded bizarre. (A recent lit review on music perception of cochlear implant patients goes over this in more detail.) I was a competitive pianist, a touring cellist, picked up other instruments (madrigals recorder! guitar!) for fun, arranged a capella pieces… why would I ruin something I loved? I had residual low-frequency hearing, and a cochlear implant would take that away; sure, it would give me bionic versions of high frequencies I didn’t have, but it would replace my low frequency hearing with electronic beeps and buzzes as well.
Towards the end of college, my classmate Jay Gantz interviewed me for his humanities capstone on hearing-impaired musicians. Sometime during the course of our conversations, he mentioned his dad, Bruce, was working on a new thing that I might find interesting: a hybrid cochlear implant. This used a short electrode that only went partway into the cochlea, giving you bionic high frequency hearing and leaving the low frequency hearing untouched — if all went well. You’d use acoustic amplification (as in a normal hearing aid) for your low frequencies that were good enough for it, and have digital signals replacing the high frequencies that were cochelar dead regions that couldn’t do anything anyway. It sounded cool, but once again… why would I need it? I didn’t know what I was missing, and didn’t really care — I didn’t seem to need it, anyway.
Fast forward several years. I’m in grad school. I’ve seen more glimpses of what I’m missing, and I wonder what it would be like to try for it. After talking with a faculty member who got a cochlear implant as a graduate student and hearing how the implant had changed her ability to teach and speak and work with students, I was awed; her “before” practices and compensations sounded exactly like mine. Q&A is hell. Control your classes, control the interactivity; you can’t respond to much when you have difficulty hearing, so make sure your students are only interacting with you in the ways you can respond to them. Craft your talks so audience interaction comes in predictable ways at predictable points. Control, control, control — because you need to be on firm ground, you need to not be adrift, you need to be able to respond professionally… and do this all so naturally that people don’t notice that you’re working with constraints that are constraining them too. It’s like playing Ravel’s piano concerto for the left hand. It is remarkable; it sounds glorious, and it is no less a great piece than any concertos written for two hands — you don’t listen to it thinking “what a shame this piece uses only one hand!” — but there are so many more concertos written for two hands, such a wider range of things you can play with it.
I’m a good teacher and a good speaker; I have a natural knack for both, and am honing my skills deliberately in both spheres so I’ll develop that talent into greatness. And I am at the point where I can see my inability to hear and to respond to people speaking to me in those situations as a limitation, as a ceiling that stops me from getting better in certain ways I’d like to improve on.
Bruce Gantz is in Iowa; the surgery is now in the 2nd phase of clinical trials. Northwestern University also does it, and it’s half an hour from my parents’ house. I’m not sure how I would afford it. I seem to fit the criteria for candidacy, but need to get evaluated at a surgery site to be sure.
The professor with a cochlear implant that I talked to recommended scheduling the surgery for when I’m ABD — all but dissertation, finished with classes and with only my thesis to write. I could take the time I need to learn how to hear again without worrying about paying attention to lectures, and by the time I graduated, and started teaching in my own classrooms as a faculty member (if I go that route), I’d be used to it. The wait-for-later alternatives are stopping the tenure clock or waiting ’till my first sabbatical and dedicating that to surgery rather than research. If I’m going for this, grad school really does seem to be best time.
But there are risks; I could lose my hearing instead of adding to it. And there are expenses, and I’m not sure this is how I want to use my savings — how about a house, how about travels, how about all the others dreams I have? And there’s equipment that I’ll need to maintain and rely on for the rest of my life. And there’s my other crazy plan for my ABD time, which is to write my dissertation on a round-the-world ticket. Could I get the surgery next winter break and take spring semester for intensive aural rehab while continuing to conduct my dissertation interviews? (Would I want to give up the opportunity to dance next spring semester again because I’ll be recovering from surgery? Would I have to?) Would I be ready to launch around the world on a language-learning, world-travelling odyssey the following year, good location-independent dissertation writing habits in tow?
I don’t know. I don’t know at all. It’s ludicrously ambitious. It’s…
I mean, the round-the-world language-learning tour would certainly be far easier if I could hear more frequencies. I’m pulling off so many simultaneous compensatory strategies when learning spoken languages that I can physically feel the strain and exhaustion that result afterwards (if you’ve ever done language immersion classes and know how mentally exhausting those are, imagine doing them with earplugs in; my hearing’s far worse than that). I’m… I’m pretty crazy. I do things like this. Sometimes they even work. It would be one hell of an adventure. And I want to hear. And I can take the risk. It’s only one ear, one side, at a time.
And so I’m checking out that possibility. I’ll take a deep breath and write some emails after Mass, I think. It’s… what do I pour all of my energy into, all of the massive energies I have? Maybe… maybe it’s this. Maybe it’s supposed to be this. I’m going to find out.