I’m writing this from the Ronald Reagan airport in DC. I just finished a trip to work on one of the grant projects for the Taishoff Center at Syracuse University, an amazing project forming a consortium of disability services providers working at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (www.hbcudisabilityconsortium.org). This is my first trip since I got my cochlear implant, so it’s been interesting to see how it goes.
Last Thursday, I had another “mapping” session with my audiologist, where we tweak the implant to keep improving how it functions (and how I function with it). I had been nervous before the appointment because we were going to be programming the three implant channels. My audiologist told me to figure out which ones might be best for music, for the phone, and for everyday usage. If I wanted to, we could program one of the channels for situations like meetings, noisy situations, or classrooms where I’m teaching. For two weeks between appointments, I tried to figure out the best channel for each of these, but channels one and two sounded the same. And channel three was my preferred channel for everything. I was a musician in my previous life as a hearing person, so I felt like I should be able to figure out which channel would be good for music, but on channel three I was getting more of the singer’s voice and treble, and on channel two I was getting more of the layers of music, but less of the singers. So which is better? I had no idea what to ask my audiologist to do. I thought about children getting cochlear implants. How the heck do they (or their parents) decide which channel should be for classrooms? Which one for everyday? Which one for loud settings? Or music? Or…? When I shared my angst with a friend, she suggested I ask for Showtime, HBO, and maybe one basic cable channel. Ha ha. Disability humor.
Well all my worrying was for naught. Turns out that programming channels for specific environments is just an easy way for audiologists to get a grip on what people want their implants to do. Another way to program it is by playing around with the functions built into the implant itself. It’s like having a 4×4 off-road vehicle: you can decide what to do with its features based on the landscape (“Oh, I’m off-road in the mud, so let’s try this…”), or you can decide what to try based on what’s built into it (“Hey, let’s drive somewhere and try this positive traction thing…”).
So we programmed channel one to be the T-coil. Most phones have a special telecoil built into the phone (although not my iPhone – shame on you, Apple). So when I turn on channel one, I pick up what’s on the phone and no longer get sound from the environment around me. Honestly, I haven’t tried this because I can’t find a phone that works, but I haven’t played around enough with it yet. Some auditoriums are equipped with a loop system, where they wire the whole place so whatever is going into microphones on stage is immediately bounced out to audience members who have turned on the t-switches in their hearing aids or implants. Also haven’t tried this, since I have no idea where loop systems exist in Syracuse.
But channel two is now super cool and definitely my favorite, with the cochlear implant version of hi-def stereo (like the Maxell ad with Blow-Away Guy shown above). Turns out there’s a second microphone on my implant, although I am not 100% sure of where it is (and for some reason Advanced Bionics literature doesn’t explain this well). I have included a picture here that shows where I *think* it is in relation to the volume control, channel switches, etc.
The cool thing about channel two is that I now get layers of sound like hearing people – so I can hear someone near me with the first microphone that hangs over my ear, but the omnidirectional smaller one on the back of the implant picks up environmental sounds, as well. So for some reason everything sounds much clearer and more natural. When the audiologist turned it on, my eyes opened wide and I felt like my brain and I both went “WHOAAAAAAA! What is THAT?!” Some of the sounds that made my “Top 10 Worst Sounds” list no longer bother me if I’m using channel two now.
Channel three stayed the same, with sound only going in the microphone that hangs over my ear ( it’s on the tip of the piece that hooks over my ear – in the far left in the picture above). I use that when it’s a noisier environment, and layered sound isn’t a good idea.
I wanted to blog right away about the appointment, but I left feeling kind of mentally overwhelmed – it reminded me of how I felt as a high school exchange student landing in Japan, where my senses were on overload.
For example, after my mapping appointment on Thursday, I stepped into the parking lot with channel two on. I heard a weird sound near my car. Took me a few seconds to realize it wasn’t the wind – it was the leaves of the nearby tree blowing in the wind! I had to check to be sure that’s what it was. And then I realized I was in the parking lot with my head in a tree, moving leaves with my hands. I’m lucky I wasn’t gently escorted by security to a totally different kind of clinic.
After extricating myself from the tree, got in the car and tried out the T-coil on channel one, but it didn’t work with my iPhone, so I tried channel two, knowing the microphone over my ear would pick up the phone while the other microphone continued getting environmental sounds. First I called work, because I knew nobody would answer – I could hear the ringing and the voice mail pick up. Hm. Interesting. So then I called home. My parents are visiting, and I heard the phone ring, my mom pick up (although I thought it was my dad), and my mom saying “Sounds good! Bye!” after I told her I was heading home. What a bizarre experience. I tried it again later with my partner, Tracy, but all I heard was the weird robot sound I usually hear with women’s voices. So it’s still hit-or-miss.
Traveling with this new set-up is great. I noticed it was much easier lip-reading security, people at the ticket counter, folks manning counters when I buy food, etc. I didn’t have to write with anyone back and forth to communicate. So the implant is now exactly where I wanted it – I am back to having some residual hearing that can help me lip-read. But I was also surprised by the fact I could hear the pilot making announcements on the plane, I could tell when the cab driver was trying to talk to me (WHY do they do that after I tell them I’m deaf???), and I heard someone knock on the door of my hotel room yesterday. I was also surprised how little the implant helps me with people who have accents – that’s still too difficult.
Another interesting tidbit not related to sound – I am still not sure what to do about airport security. My Advanced Bionics implant literature says it’s no problem for me to go through the metal detectors with the implant – I just have to be really careful the implant is not in any carry-on or checked luggage, because the x-rays will destroy the processor. Nevertheless, TSA personnel in Syracuse and DC both suggested I get a pat-down search instead of even going through the metal detector. That’s fine with me. I’d rather be safe than sorry. Only bummer is that I just got my flu shot and a vaccine for meningitis (people with implants are at higher risk of meningitis, and I work at a college, which is like a large-scale petri dish for meningitis). My arm still has a big purplish red bruise, so being patted down was a real bummer.
But the map and the shots got me through my first road trip. That said, I’m sitting here in the airport wearing my implant even though the battery is dead. There’s a new battery in my bag, but I’m tired and the airport is loud, and I don’t want to be hearing anything right now. The silence is just lovely. It reminds me of Amy Mullins, who spoke at a TED conference about being able to change her height by changing her prosthetic legs – some of her friends think this isn’t fair. Well, maybe it’s not fair for me to change from being sort of deaf to completely deaf as I choose, but I’m not going to apologize for it. You could say that it’s my journey, literally and figuratively, so I choose how to get there.
P.S. Thanks for all the advice about adding pictures – you’ll notice I’m giving it a try! And I’ve added a whole page with more photos (so now I have my home page, my photo page, and my bio page on this blog).