Sunday, 15 May 2011

On Hearing

Hearing is a miracle. Nothing less.

That we can perceive the exact vibrations of air – which cross at so many different frequencies – and that we can make sense out of these air-vibrations is amazing.

All the more so when we consider how much of our life takes place through our talk. Our soft murmurs of love. Our short sharp warning shouts. The drip-drip-drip after an early monsoon shower. The whirring of the fan. The click-click of the train bogie hurtling through the dark night. The warm sounds of people talking in the kitchen. The soaring notes of a song of praise.

And how alienating it is if we are excluded from this forest of sound.

Appa has inhabited this land for years.

A few months ago, when he was visiting us he said that we was ready to have his ears checked. We took him to an audiologist – our old friend Santosh Joshi – who performed the tests and found out that Appa was living with severe hearing-loss due to neural degeneration.

Because of the high decibel sound environment that Appa worked in during his days at the Rourkela Steel Plant – and during the days of his working with heavy machinery in the captive mines that feed the RSP – he has suffered neural loss. Certain parts of the sound spectrum are not being picked up by his ears.

When Santosh spoke loudly and on a topic – Appa was able to hear him and respond. When Santosh spoke a bit softer and suddenly changed the topic – Appa was not able to catch the change. He was actually lip reading to compensate for what he was not hearing.

Santosh asked Appa why he wanted to be helped. Appa said that many times he hears sounds but cannot make out what is being said. He would attend church meetings and want to follow along in the Bible – but the sound from the loudspeakers was confusing to him and he is not able to get the main points of the message that is being preached.

The solution to Appa’s hearing loss is two-fold.

The first part of which I was familiar with – the second came as a surprise.

To compensate for the loss of hearing in certain parts of the spectrum – we were advised to get two digital hearing aids.

These tiny machines were programmed to amplify the areas of the spectrum which cannot be heard.
We got the machines and inserted them. When Appa started using them, a big change took place immediately. His own voice volume decreased dramatically.

Why? Because now he could hear what he himself was saying without speaking at a semi-shout.

Secondly, he became immediately aware of all the environmental sound. The hum of the air-conditioner in the consulting room. The whirring of a fan in our bedroom. The loud sound of an auto-rickshaw – seven floors down on the street outside our house. These sounds which we routinely filter out were heard again by Appa – and not appreciated.

What surprised me was Santosh’s statement about the need to relearn hearing.

According to him, because Appa was not hearing so many of the sounds over the years – his brain will have forgotten what certain sounds are like.
The challenges at this point is not only to increase the volume – which is done immediately when the hearing aids are inserted and turned on.

The real challenge for Appa is to retrain his brain by relearning. Relearning what different sounds are like. Retraining his mind to filter out that which is not important. Rematching sound to meaning.

All of this takes time. Its easier said than done. Santosh said that it would be a matter of at least a month for Appa to get used to the hearing aids.

His words came true. Appa found it very hard to use the hearing aids on the phone – and usually switched off the aids – and resumed his previous high-volume voice when talking on the mobile. Initially he complained about an echoing – which was partially helped by Santosh making a special mould for the plastic parts to fit snugly into Appa’s ear. Later when Appa was back in Vishakapatnam, he developed an ear infection – and had to have some oil and antibiotics to deal with it.

I have had my own small experience with this over the past month. For some reason my mobile phone is stuck in ‘speaker’ mode. I have tried repeatedly to figure out a way to turn it off – but it keeps switching back on to speaker mode when I finish the call. The settings have been scoured for possible reasons for why this is so – all fruitless.

A month ago I took a call. Without thinking I place the handset next to my ear. It was made worse because I was wearing a helmet at the time – and the phone was inserted snugly in-between the helmet foam and my ear – all at speaker volume. The call was over in about 10 seconds – but the ringing pain in my ear did not fade that quickly. For days I had a ringing and echoing.

I felt cut off and aloof because my inner me was not easily hearing what was going on around me – and others were. The pain and ringing eventually have subsided, but what a sobering glimpse into what so many others experience on a day to day basis.

What a miracle hearing is – and what a gift to be able to listen.

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