My hearing journey began on a blistering cold day in January, 1995. That morning, when I awoke to a bizarre ringing sensation in my ears, it was easy to write the experience off to my being pregnant with twins and caring for my three-year-old son. Things went downhill after my twins were born. I started having trouble hearing the stove timer, the phone, and even my husband.
I sat in the front seat with tears in my eyes, because I realized I could not understand a word they were saying.
When I also began to have pain in my ear, I went to see my primary care physician. He couldn’t find an infection, but suspected hearing loss. After many tests, my audiologist found me to have moderate hearing loss, and prescribed treatment with hearing aids. For 18 years, this option was viable, but then, the straw broke, and it hit me how much of my life I was really missing.
One day, on the way home from being picked up from band camp, my twins were ecstatic to share their experience. But I sat in the front seat with tears in my eyes, because I realized I could not understand a word they were saying. It hit me hard that day, seeing as I had retreated from my life because of my inability to hear well. I had stopped going to movies and out to restaurants. Even at family holidays, I would isolate myself in a corner, huddled with my solid book companion.
This is NOT what I had envisioned, and I knew that day that something had to change.
I recall the day clearly when I was talking to my friend, and she casually suggested I look into cochlear implants. I honestly didn’t think I would be a candidate because I still had a “bit of hearing left.” After speaking with several hearing care professionals, however, I turned out to be a great fit for this amazing technology.
After hours and hours of research on the internet, reading through company literature, and talking to my audiologist, I concluded that AB had the best technology on the market, and I was implanted with a CI seven years ago.
I was activated a few weeks later. As much as I would have liked that classic Hallmark-style video with everyone crying tears of joy – the truth is, I was too busy laughing, because my audiologist went from having such a sweet, pleasant voice, to sounding like a cartoon character. But I didn’t care because I understood every single word she was saying!
I drove home from my activation appointment talking to my sister on the phone. I was able to identify music, understand lyrics, and even understand people in restaurants right away thanks to AB’s noise program, UltraZoom, and ClearVoice. I know in my case I responded very quickly, which does not happen with everyone, and I could not have been more grateful for all of the sounds around me.
I remember I couldn’t stop laughing at how strange he sounded.
The hardest part was talking to my husband. He went suddenly from his normal, deepish male voice to sounding like Minnie Mouse on helium. I remember I couldn’t stop laughing at how strange he sounded. But his words were now clear, no longer muffled and confused.
Friends I struggled to hear with hearing aids were suddenly understandable again. Going to movies in a theater was a joy because I could understand the dialogue. I felt like I had a normal life again, all with one cochlear implant.
My world became clear again, so I took a chance and asked my audiologist about “going bilateral” by getting a second implant. I figured if one was this amazing, how great could it be to hear this well on both sides? Fortunately, I was approved, and in February of 2014, I got my second implant.
As with my first, I was able to understand my audiologist as soon as my second implant was activated. But a few minutes later, she needed to change my new headpiece magnet and took it off my head. As soon as she did that, everything sounded too soft again. I was struggling to understand her, even though my right implant was great just moments before. Just within those few minutes that I had my second implant activated, my brain had recognized that it needed more input from both ears.
Looking back now on my life with hearing aids and progressively worsening hearing loss, I am saddened by all that I missed, and at the same time so grateful for everything I hear now.
I remember trying to listen to a news story on my car radio with hearing aids. I had turned the volume of the radio up all the way and still could not understand what they were saying. Now my radio is set at about” 5,” and I’m able to understand music, lyrics, and even talk radio.
The biggest difference going from one CI to two was music. Music heard with one ear sounded pretty good, very close to what I remember it sounding like before I lost my hearing. I heard parts of songs that I couldn’t hear with my hearing aids, and I could understand lyrics, identify instruments, and really enjoy music.
But with two implants, my ears complement each other. Now I’m able to hear the full range of sounds from the deepest bass to the highest piccolo. When the percussionist plays the triangle, I can hear that, too.
Before my first implant surgery, I spent the entire weekend listening to all of my music, including Christmas music, because I wasn’t sure if I would ever enjoy music again. Now, music sounds as I remember. I can play my violin again, something I couldn’t do with my hearing aids, because I couldn’t hear the high notes. Even new songs sound great, and I can understand the lyrics!
I’m finally able to enjoy going to restaurants again and often hear better than my husband, especially in the noisiest restaurants. That’s because my sound processors can work together to dim background noise and elevate speech in noise.
People often ask me what is my favorite thing about cochlear implants, and other than being able to understand life again, it has to be a feature called DuoPhone. DuoPhone is a program that allows me to hold the phone up to one ear and it automatically streams the conversation to both ears. While I can understand on the phone with just one CI, being able to understand with both ears gives me total understanding. I rarely have to say “Excuse me, could you repeat that," or in short, “Huh?”
I can honestly say that getting my cochlear implants has been the best thing I have ever done for myself!
Gretchen Flynn is a graduate of the College of St. Benedict with degrees in Social Science and Education. After working in the education field for several years, Gretchen became a stay-at-home parent to her three children. When she reentered the workforce, Gretchen worked in the financial services industry, specializing in employee benefits. Her hearing loss forced her to retire from that field, and she moved into Human Resources, again, for 12 years, specializing in employee benefits. In 2019, Gretchen came to Advanced Bionics, where she helps CI candidates and wearers throughout their hearing journey. Gretchen lives in Minnesota with her husband and very spoiled dog.