Vera Brearey: My blocked ears saga

Posted on March 15, 2017

A few months ago I had a hearing scare. A fairly minor virus almost completely wiped out my hearing for a while (I’m already severely deaf) and left it very reduced for several long weeks. My hearing loss began forty years ago after a dose of the flu and I worried that history might be repeating itself.

The virus itself had me in bed for a couple of days, aching and nauseous, but it wasn’t too bad. However, on the fourth day my hearing suddenly went, overnight. My husband, Nigel, tried to speak to me. His mouth moved but no sound got through unless he was about two feet away from my ears. I’ve never known that happen before. Muffled hearing after a cold – yes – but nothing like this. The next day – no better. I phone the doctor (thank goodness for Next Generation Text) who says give it a few days.

I do (no change) so I e-mail Audiology. I’m forever impressed that my local NHS audiology department is so responsive. The receptionist spoke to the manager and got back to me the next day – you need to get your GP to refer you to the Ear, Nose and Throat Department at another local hospital.

I phone the doctor again, to set that in motion. I speak to a different GP and explain the problem, including the worries about my original flu-related hearing loss. She gives the perfect answer. Essentially she said, “try not to worry about it too much, it’s very unlikely that what you are describing will cause further damage, but I understand just how important your hearing must be to you, so would you like an appointment later this afternoon”. PERFECT. Reassurance, understanding and action. “Yes, please”, I said.

Then she said “do you need any hearing support at the appointment?” HURRAH. I don’t know whether this response was triggered by the Accessible Information Standard (law since July) or would have happened anyway. I didn’t need any support because I don’t sign and my lip reading is pretty good, but it was the right thing to ask someone communicating by text relay.

Later on, I drove to the doctor’s appointment. This was the first time I’d been in a car for ten days and I was shocked to realise I couldn’t hear the engine. It was surreal. I pressed the accelerator, took the brake off and the car moved – but I couldn’t hear a thing.

The doctor I saw asked questions. Then he twanged a tuning fork and held it against various parts of my skull, asking me to tell him in which position I could hear most clearly. I couldn’t hear anything at all in any position. “Right”, he said, “I’m going to speak to a specialist”. I thought he meant that he would contact someone the next day (it was already about 5.30pm) but he did it right there and then. He rang an on-call ENT consultant and told him/her – well, who knows what he said because I couldn’t hear. But the result was that they arranged an appointment to see me.

A week later I spent a couple of hours at ENT. One test was a procedure called tympanometry where an audiologist uses an instrument to cause a short puff of pressure in the outer ear (it doesn’t hurt) to assess whether the eardrum is vibrating normally in response. Mine wasn’t. Fluid in the middle ear, behind the eardrum, was stopping it moving as it should, so sounds weren’t travelling through the ear to my cochlear and brain. They said the fluid would eventually drain and arranged a follow-up appointment two weeks later. I was hugely relieved to have a diagnosis of something that was curable.

Meanwhile, I continued to withdraw from everything I normally do that involved people in groups (which seemed to be most of the things I had planned for the late winter). This was dispiriting, but I was trying to follow my own advice about survival strategies for bad hearing times. I did things that didn’t involve my ears. I cooked. I read. I took the dog for walks. I waited, basically, and tried to be patient.

Gradually, more sound got through but the speech I heard wasn’t the speech I was used to hearing. It took a lot of hard work to understand, even sitting in a quiet room focussed on just one person. I was like this on the day of my follow-up appointment. Sitting in the room with the consultant, concentrating hard, I could follow what he said, which was to repeat the diagnosis that I had fluid behind the eardrums and it would eventually drain.

I asked how long that might take. “It could take weeks yet”, he said, grimacing sympathetically. Instinctively I groaned and started telling the tale of everything I couldn’t do and how difficult things were. Then I stopped myself and said “I’m sorry – this isn’t helping” but he was quick to step in and say “no, no, I quite understand – you have very poor hearing and this event has reduced it very significantly even from that level – I can quite understand how upset you must be and how difficult you must be finding it.” Another perfect medical response. How important it is to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

He prescribed six days of steroid nose drops, to attempt to speed up the clearing of the Eustachian tubes, which is how the fluid needed to drain. He explained that if all else failed they could drain the fluid (with grommets I think… a child with glue ear) but that he needed to try non-invasive methods first. He would organise another follow up appointment in about a month.

Back home, things very slowly improved, although progress wasn’t linear. Some days more sound seemed to be getting through, then the next day things went backwards again. But gradually, the sounds of the house started returning – the tapping of the keyboard first, then the washing machine, eventually the fan oven. Slowly, I could hear the sound of speech return on TV programmes, even if I couldn’t decipher it.

Speech, of course, is always the hardest. All those annoying, high-pitched, short, rapid consonants. What a miracle it is that people “hear” and make sense of it. Gradually, though, Nigel and I progressed. We moved from short sentences, sitting within three or four feet of each other, both of us sometimes thinking “is this communication absolutely essential?” to slightly easier chats. We then progressed to really quite detailed conversations from – oh – all the way across the kitchen.

Eventually, after about five weeks things got almost back to normal – enough to re-join the world, anyway. The nose drops seemed to make a huge difference, although the passage of time undoubtedly helped too.

Three thoughts:

I feel quite humbled by the effect this minor thing had on me. Minor because it was, after all, only five weeks – it seemed like eternity but it really wasn’t – and minor because other people suffer so much worse. They really do suffer a sudden and permanent hearing loss.

Never forget the partners of deaf people. It is just as hard for them. Alongside his normal skills (endless patient repeating, never shouting and never getting cross) Nigel has had to add reassuring a fed up and worried wife and spending a lot of time in silence (because it was really hard work to chat).

THANK YOU NHS. Given the big problems faced by our health service I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised if a sixty-three year old woman with blocked ears wasn’t seen as a priority at all. But no, people took me seriously, they listened, they empathised and they did the right things. I’m very grateful.

Vera started in February last year.  In it she talks about her life with hearing loss – first diagnosed in her early 20s and deteriorating steadily since.  Early 60s.  Retired.  Lives in a village in Yorkshire with husband, dog and cat.  Resolutely ploughing on, trying to see the funny side.

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