I’m told that I’m one of the originals. In 1994, after a terrible auto accident, I was fighting to save my right leg. The doctors prescribed a particular medicine and told me there was a twenty percent chance that I would lose my hearing from using it. To a 19-year-old active college student, there was no choice at the time. But it turned out that I was indeed part of that twenty percent.
For six months, I struggled to get my body stronger and learn to live in an increasingly silent world. I was losing my hearing rapidly until I had moderate to severe hearing loss in both my right and left ears. My hearing aids weren’t helping enough, and my grades began to suffer. And right about the time I was thinking of leaving college, my doctor told me about this new invention for hearing loss called a cochlear implant.
And so, at twenty, I was implanted with the Advanced Bionics S-Series cochlear implant (CI) system on my right side. Life was never perfect, but it got better. While I missed how comfortable my hearing aid was in the ear, the CI significantly improved the quality of what I could hear. A friend once asked what it was like to hear with these different devices and I told her this analogy: Imagine you are looking at a TV with static and you know there is someone speaking. The hearing aid amplified the static, while the CI brings out the speech hidden by the static.
Picture in your mind a Walkman cassette player so popular in the ‘80s and early ‘90s – and you can get an idea of what the S-Series looked like.
For those not familiar with the S-Series – picture in your mind a Walkman cassette player so popular in the ‘80s and early ‘90s – and you can get an idea of what the S-Series looked like. It did not open like a Walkman, but it was about one-third of the weight and height. I wore it clipped to my pants, shirt, or sometimes even my bra when I wanted to wear a dress. It had a cable wire of about eighteen to twenty-four inches that connected to the headpiece. It is similar to the processor used today. It also had a big, bulky battery. Despite this, and the impact it had on my wardrobe – since I basically stopped wearing dresses – it was like a door opened for me. It gave me the confidence to go back and finish college.
I graduated college and began my teaching career. My job brought me many more challenges as I was a hearing-impaired teacher in an inner-city middle school classroom in Atlanta. After two years of struggling to adapt, I left education. I made changes and again learned to adapt in a classroom environment. I returned to teaching after a three-year hiatus – this time in elementary school.
After I returned to teaching, my audiologist told me that a newer sound processor was being made by Advanced Bionics and that I qualified for it. So at thirty-one, I received my second implant on the left side, together with the new Harmony sound processor. And bonus – I was able to trade in my S-Series for a Harmony sound processor on the right as well! The Harmony unit is worn behind the ear very much like a hearing aid, so my “leash” was finally cut!
Besides the dramatic improvement in the cosmetic and convenience aspect of my new CI system, a new world of sound was opened up to me, now that I could hear with both ears. I no longer had to just smile and nod because I only understood half of what was spoken. I didn’t have to urge kids to move to my right side when they wanted to talk to me, because I could now hear equally well from both sides. I didn’t have to depend on my coworkers to relay information to me. My teaching style changed for the better, and my daily stress levels lowered.
The kids knew that I was the teacher with “bionic ears,” as I called them.
Several years later, the Naída Q90 was introduced and through the trade-in program, I now have the Naída on the left, and the Harmony on the right, as well as the Roger Pen. Boy, did my students have fun with that one! By this time, I was in my twelfth year of teaching at the same elementary school. The kids knew that I was the teacher with “bionic ears,” as I called them. I was very up-front with my students about my CIs and Roger Pen—at their age, you have to be. The Roger Pen offered them the ability to whisper to me when they needed help. I kept it in a special place in the classroom, and I helped the kids to feel comfortable using it daily in class. It was an invaluable tool when I was working in small groups or having children read their writing to me.
Fast forward about five years, I started to notice a decrease in the hearing quality on my right side. So I made the decision to undergo surgery again on that ear, and completely upgrade my implant, as well the sound processor, to Naída Q90 in May 2020. In other words, my original implant had lasted for twenty-five years! With this new implant, another new door was opened, as well as a goody toolbox!
The Bluetooth connectivity capability and the Roger System have added to my life and have helped with my teaching in ways I never would have thought possible. Who knew I had been singing so many songs wrong? The Bluetooth connection now allows me to listen to music and hear phone conversations clearly, bypassing background noise in the environment.
I am now a self-contained special education teacher at a high school teaching kids with mild to severe cognitive disabilities. The Roger System, or circle, as we call it, is a great tool for small groups, as well as for nights out in a restaurant with my husband. The ability to localize, or hone in on a specific voice, is absolutely the best. Given that some of my school kids also have speech impairments, the circle is one of the most useful tools for me. In my opinion, the Roger System is the best thing out there for conferences and noisy environments.
At the time of this writing, I’m five months in from my surgery. I’m still getting used to this new way of hearing and living, and my brain is still acclimating to the new technology. Even though I have lived with a CI for more than half my life, with a new implant, my brain still had to adjust to this foreign device. I was lucky enough to hear sounds from the moment I was activated about three weeks after surgery, but there is a definite disconnect when you are first “turned on.” I told my husband that everyone sounded as if they had sucked on helium when they were talking to me – like Donald Duck.
I was fortunate enough to be activated during the summer school break. So I had the time to devote to aural rehabilitation. I did listening exercises several times a day, and only wore the processor on the newly implanted side for the first three weeks. I had to take hearing breaks where I took off both processors and just enjoyed the silence.
Hearing with a CI is hard work, and I have come to realize that it is not just an easy fix for hearing loss. I was one of the first people in the world to receive an AB CI, and as time has passed, my hearing has progressively improved as the technology improved. As amazed as I was about how much my very first CI helped me, I continue to be impressed that even more doors have opened for me over time along this journey.
But it doesn’t happen by magic. I had to do hearing exercises with letters, words, sentences, and sounds. I became the student, as, once again, I sought to train my brain to distinguish between these sounds. But thankfully, the hard work is starting to pay off and the Donald Duck voices have started to fade. I will continue to do my hearing exercises at least once a week, because I know that great things are coming, and more doors will be opened.
KaRon Michael is in her nineteenth year of being a teacher. She has taught elementary, middle and high school, and is currently a special education teacher. Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, KaRon currently makes her home in rural Georgia. In their spare time, she and her husband David enjoy bowling, discovering hiking trails, and travelling.