By Rose DuMont
Leaving home for college with a severe to profound hearing loss was difficult. I graduated high school with high honors and had a lot of friends despite receiving only minimal support from my behind-the-ear hearing aids.
The inadequacy of my devices, which provided only a “soft” introduction to sound, soon caught up to me when I began my undergraduate studies. I struggled to hear my professors, and I was overwhelmed by the amount of responsibility I was required to take on. Among my many classmates in large lecture halls, I felt invisible and became lazy about attending classes. I was unable to fully participate in conversations with others.
In the first semester, I developed an ear infection that caused my right eardrum to burst. This immediately caused vertigo, which I wrote off as a one-time, horrible experience. I was in my dorm, where I remained on the floor for an hour until the world stopped spinning. It felt as if the floor had been ripped out from under me and nothing would be right ever again. I didn't throw up that first time, but I have thrown up nearly every time since.
Over the next two years, I experienced vertigo with increasing frequency. Eventually I was having attacks every few days. Every vertigo episode seemed never ending. Once the spinning stopped, there was no relief; just a feeling of impending doom. My tinnitus―which already affected me throughout my life―became more pronounced than ever before. The incessant white noise sometimes makes me feel like I am trapped in a huge indoor stadium with thousands of people talking at once. I consulted an ENT at Mass Eye and Ear who administered three sets of vestibular tests, two MRIs, and multiple hearing tests over an 18-month period. Finally, at age 21, I received a Ménière's disease diagnosis and I searched and found a specialist at UMass Worcester for treatment.
Being given a definitive reason for my debilitating vertigo brought immense relief. At last, I could give a name to the source of my misery and take appropriate doctor-directed measures. I reduced my sodium intake, kept my weight in check, and tried my best to reduce stress.
I was prescribed a low dose of Klonopin (taken daily) and Ativan (when I felt an attack coming on), which I took diligently for nearly 3 years before I decided I would rather not be reliant on drugs for the rest of my life. I voluntarily gave up driving for 2 years, not knowing when an episode would hit. Klonopin allowed me to lead a somewhat normal life and kept my vertigo at bay. Taking that daily, I was able to go to my college classes most of the time and began to drive a car again. Weaning myself off of Klonopin was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. It took me 9 months, but my body was able to compensate for the change as I slowly took my reliance off the drug and onto my own vestibular system. I took up yoga, started running marathons, encouraged the positive relationships in my life to outweigh the negative ones, and have continued my low-sodium diet for over a decade. My life is infinitely better becoming consistent with these practices.
At 23, I received a cochlear implant in my left ear at the recommendation of my audiologist. The day after my surgery, I had vertigo for 18 hours straight. Fortunately, I’ve never experienced something like that since. And, after getting my implant programmed and hearing my audiologist ask, “Can you hear me?” I knew it was the right decision. Cochlear implantation has enabled me to become more independent and, therefore, happier. I’m still excited by the new sounds I discover each day.
I started running long distance when I was 29, and am hooked on how good running makes me feel. Since I’ve started, my vertigo happens far less than it ever did (only 3 or 4 times a year!), and I know I am the one in control, instead of feeling as if Ménière's disease controls me. I’ve run 5 half marathons and 6 marathons, with my 7th in March in Washington, D.C. and 8th in June in Portland, OR.
At this point I can say Ménière's disease and my initial negative experiences in undergraduate school have impacted my life for the better. Ménière's is a lonely condition but it’s forced me to become much more self-reliant―an important trait to finding both work and friends wherever I go, as I’ve moved around the country. Before I could depend on myself, I’d look to everyone else to try to do things just like them. In college, for example, I tried to listen and take notes at the same time during classes before realizing, at age 30, that I’m not able to learn the same way as someone with typical hearing. Once I realized that, my Masters degree was a breeze, and I was able to easily earn my 3.9 GPA.
Ménière's disease does not affect all people the same way. Not everyone has the same symptoms so it can be difficult to diagnose. Also, there isn’t one specific treatment. If one method doesn’t help, then you need to try another. Be patient and realize you are stronger than you think.
If I could, I’d tell my younger self―just after my Ménière's diagnosis―this: “You are stronger than you think you are.” The same goes for anyone becoming acquainted with the condition. I’d tell them, “You’re a champion.” I’m not yet a running champion; I have never placed in a race. Though I can run a marathon in under 4 hours, my dream is to reduce my time by 20 minutes to qualify for the Boston Marathon. There I can compete alongside some of the best runners in the world, doing what keeps me balanced, relying only on myself.
Rose DuMont lives in Arizona where she works as a teacher of the deaf. She was diagnosed with hearing loss at age 5 and is a participant in HHF’s “Faces of Hearing Loss” project.