The surgery promises me the gift of complete hearing. I will use it to better hear other people’s needs. – Chicago Tribune
April 27th was a game changer for me. I knew it would be. What on the surface appears to be a two-month countdown to something almost magical was actually something I had been waiting for several decades. I want to share with you my happiness and gratitude about this.
She was born with two inner ears but only one outer ear. So, on the left side, I have the typical ear that I hear from. I have never been able to hear out of my right ear because there is no opening.
The surgery I had about a week ago implanted a small anchor in my head near the right side of my inner ear. It will take about two months for the bone to grow around the anchor to hold it firmly in place. At this point, I will be fitted with an external hearing aid that connects to the new internal anchor inside my head, and I will hear from the right side for the first time!
It will be a big change. But a lot of the science has changed since I was a little kid. Although it is still rare for someone to be born with only one outer ear, surgeons today can use cadaveric outer ears or a prosthesis that can be surgically affixed to give the appearance of a typical outer ear. Although an artificial ear does not provide hearing, it does look like a model ear, and for a child, it is a great gift not to constantly hear the question, “What happened to your ear?”
My parents wanted to excuse me for this question. So, at the age of four, using the only surgery available at the time, I started an operation to build an outer ear shell so I could look like other kids.
From the age of 4 until I was 16, every year around Christmas and sometimes during the summer holidays, I had surgeries where cartilage from other parts of my body was added and sculpted on the right side of my head to build the shape of the outer ear. I had 14 surgeries. The result was fair, but not great. As my partner in the secondary lab said, “What happened to your ear? Looks like a lawnmower ran over it.”
Unilateral hearing means I can hear many things, not everything. In normal conversation, I usually hear about seven out of 10 words clearly. But I learned to read lips and can usually make out most of the words I miss. When there are words I’m still missing, I’ve learned to adapt by quickly solving the missing word puzzle in time to move on to the next sentence.
I can listen to music on the radio, I can pick out instrumental sounds well but I’ve never been able to keep track of many words. I can – and do – say hello to almost everyone I see on the street. But as they walk past me, I rarely hear them say hello.
I often hear birds singing, but I cannot hear the flapping of their wings. I can hear the children playing, but I cannot express their individual words and laughter. Babies play sounds like music, but until now, music has been without words. All of that is about to change.
When I found out that this surgery was possible, I jumped at the chance. I have long accepted that my cochlea made me sound different. But for me, it’s not a big deal. The way my right ear looks stopped being an issue for me the day I decided it wasn’t.
It’s amazing how many of us tend to overthink the way we look. But if we feel beautiful, the world will see us as beautiful. Don’t you believe it? Try it. You will be amazed.
While I am completely satisfied with the shape of my right ear, I have not been happy with my hearing loss, and I am very grateful for the hearing aid I will receive once my bone has grown around this new anchor.
But if I had a choice to be born with hearing on both sides or to have to struggle because I have struggled all my life to hear well, I would probably choose to be born exactly the way I am and to be given the struggle for the hearing that I was given.
I work as a principal in a therapeutic day school with children and young people with autism and intellectual disabilities. Many of our students are non-verbal. My limited hearing allowed me to understand nonverbal communication in a deeper way than I would have been able to if I was born with hearing on both sides. It’s more than just sympathy. It is a real connection and a gift for which I will always be grateful.
It will be interesting to see how my brain processes the ability to hear for the first time at typical levels. I think sometimes it will be overwhelming. But a good sense of confusion.
With the gift of working ears, I will have a better ability to hear those in need. I will better hear calls for acceptance from those who are misunderstood. I will be more able to hear prayers of love from our students and their families. I will better listen to calls for justice, equality, and acceptance for all people.
It is a gift that I am determined not to waste.
I thought this surgery would trigger some bad memories of the 14 surgeries I had when I was growing up. But she didn’t. Where there is true gratitude, there is no place for bad memories. There is no space to think about what it could be. There is no more wasting time.
When we allow ourselves to feel true and complete gratitude, all that is left for us to do is move forward in happiness, dignity, and gratitude for the beginning of each new day.
Phil Siegel is a school principal. He has worked as a children’s television writer and game and game designer. He, his wife, their children, their children’s grandparents, and their great-grandparents were all raised in Chicago.
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