My Ears Don’t Work, But My Implants Do

By Caroline Oberweger

“No Walkman in the water, ma’am.”

I’m in my neighborhood park, about to go swimming in a New York City public pool. “Oh sorry,“ I stammer to the City Parks employee addressing me. “It’s not a Walkman. It’s a waterproof cochlear implant processor.”

She looks at me like I’m speaking Greek. “No electronics in the water,” she repeats.

“But it’s to help me hear,” I explain.

She doesn’t budge. She doesn’t understand. I have to try another tactic. Deep breath. “I’m deaf. I cannot hear without this, so I need to wear it while I swim. It’s not a Walkman, see? It’s a magnet that goes on my head.”  

  Caroline and her family

Caroline and her family

The word deaf gets her attention. Now she gets it. Here in front of her is a person with a disability. Here is a person using an accommodation. She knows she cannot stop me from using it. Looking embarrassed, she waves me through. I thank her and smile.

In the five years since I’ve gotten my cochlear implants, one of the biggest challenges—or at least, one of the most unexpected ones—has been the need to explain the technology to others. Thanks to my long, thick hair, most of the time no one can see my implant processors at all. But when they can, the reaction is often one of bemusement or blankness.

My experience with the City Parks employee was not the first one like that, or the last. Once, on vacation, someone asked me why I needed an MP3 player in the ocean. He thought I was listening to music. He didn’t understand that I was listening to the whole world.

On a planet where only about a half million individuals out of 7.5 billion use a cochlear implant, ignorance of the technology is to be expected. And I’m proud to speak on its behalf, to explain why I need them and what they do, and to proclaim that while the technology is a marvel of science, for me it’s also just pure magic.

I love making people smile when I tell them about the first time I heard the swish-swish that applying body lotion makes (a sound I never knew existed!), or how I learned that you don’t have to actually stand in front of the oven waiting for it to reach the desired temperature, because… Did you know there’s a beep? (They knew. I did not.)

But it’s also frustrating at times. “I’m not tuning out my children,” I want to shout to those shooting a disapproving glance at that wire sticking out of my head. “I’m tuning in!”

Even relatives and close friends did not, initially, quite understand how my cochlear implants work. The very day my first implant got activated, a friend texted, “So, do you hear perfectly now?” I had to explain that, in fact, that first day I heard very poorly; it would take time, patience, and months of listening practice with a good speech-language pathologist before my brain would learn to process what initially sounded artificial and electronic as the normal, everyday sound of objects and voices.

Is my hearing perfect today, five years post-implantation? No, but it’s pretty darn good. Especially considering that, after decades of moderate to severe hearing loss, today I have no natural hearing left at all.

My ears don’t work. But my implants do, splendidly. And I couldn’t be happier.

Caroline Oberweger is HHF's development consultant. This article originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Hearing Health magazine.

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