After I’d had a bout of flu, I developed tinnitus and eventually I was referred to the Royal Ear Hospital in London. The doctors there explained that I had lost much of my ability to hear very high-pitched sounds. They also predicted that my hearing would probably get worse in time, and that is exactly what happened.
Tinnitus was my only real problem then, but slowly I noticed that other sounds were disappearing. One day someone said how lovely it was to hear a blackbird singing in London and I couldn’t hear it.
My hearing continued to deteriorate. When I was about 40, I realised that I was having difficulty understanding speech if I couldn’t see the person’s face. So I started wearing hearing aids, and then stronger and stronger versions. I managed to cope.
By the time I was in my fifties I was a director of a big national housing association. I wore powerful hearing aids and I was lip-reading, but I could still do my job. I was still living my life. My hearing was a disability, but I was on top of it.
I retired in my late fifties. It wasn’t anything to do with my hearing, but as predicted all those years ago, my hearing was getting steadily worse. I wasn’t able to use the phone any more and it was increasingly difficult to hear anything if there was a lot of background noise. I was lip-reading all the time and having to ask people to repeat what they had said.
Eventually, even which room I was in at home made a big difference. In the living room, which had carpet and soft furnishings, I could still talk to Nigel, my husband, quite easily. But in the kitchen, the sound bouncing off the worktops, cupboards and the tiled floor made understanding speech impossible. Mealtimes became agonies of loneliness.
And things got worse. In January 2017, I had flu and ended up with fluid behind both eardrums and lost my hearing completely. The doctors said that it was temporary, the fluid would drain away and it was unlikely that it would damage my hearing any further. However, a couple of months later, tests showed that I had lost even more of my hearing, and in both ears. This meant that I was now profoundly deaf for all but the lower-pitched sounds. My hearing loss was now so severe that hearing aids wouldn’t help.
I felt, at the time, as though the life that I was used to was over. I couldn’t chat to Nigel in a normal, relaxed way. If there was something we needed to talk about, we had to go to a quiet place, face each other and speak clearly. But general chitchat was impossible. To say this was enormously distressing is a massive understatement.
I couldn’t do many of the things I had enjoyed, such as meeting friends for coffee or going to talks on local history, for example. Worst of all, I could feel my personality changing. I’d been a confident person, but I became timid and withdrawn.
People think that deaf people live in a quiet world, but that’s not how it is. My hearing aids were busily trying to ramp up the sound of all the frequencies that I could still hear. That made the world very noisy, but very indistinct. In terms of speech, I could hear vowels but not most consonants, and not even these if there was any background noise. I was a pretty good lip-reader, but lip-reading is an inexact science. You aren’t really ‘hearing’, you’re ‘deciphering’.
I had been assessed for a cochlear implant in 2015 and was turned down because my hearing wasn’t bad enough. By the time I was referred again, in 2017, I had no doubt that I wanted one – if I was eligible.
The Listening for Life Centre at Bradford Royal Infirmary runs a fantastic information session for prospective patients and their families, and explained everything we needed to know.
I didn’t hesitate for a moment. I was then approved for the operation in August and had it at the Bradford Royal Infirmary in November 2017. The operation lasted for about 90 minutes, and I left hospital the next afternoon. I had a tiny scar behind my ear and a little bruising for a while, but that was all.
The Listening for Life Centre runs a comprehensive rehabilitation programme, which is enormously helpful. I had lots of listening exercises to do, and I was encouraged to get out and about as much as possible. I started going to talks and lectures again, meeting friends in noisy places, and having the radio on in the car.
I hadn’t been able to understand the car radio in a decade, but slowly I realised that I could pick out some of the words. And then, while listening to Sandi Toksvig, I laughed at one of her jokes. The improvements then came very rapidly. Within just a few weeks my hearing was better than it had been for years.
There were a lot of adjustments to my implant – this is a standard part of the process. The audiologist adjusts the degree of stimulation each electrode emits until you have the best results.
Having the cochlear implant meant that I got my life back. My confidence returned and I could enjoy being with Nigel again. It was a transformation.
New eligibility rules mean that implants will now be available to more people on the NHS. To find out more about Vera’s cochlear implant, read her blog at morethanabitdeaf.com
We both benefited
Nigel Brearey explains how the op gave him his wife back
‘Easy communication is one of the important lubricants of any relationship,’ says Nigel. ‘Just talking about “stuff” in an easy and relaxed way is part of life together. As Vera’s hearing got worse, we lost that. This was very sad and lonely for both of us, and I felt a huge sense of loss.
‘I only wanted one thing from the cochlear implant: to get Vera back. So I am very, very happy – ecstatic, in fact! Her hearing is as good as it has been in decades. The implant has transformed both our lives.’
What you need to know about cochlear implants
A cochlear implant converts sound into electrical signals and sends them to your inner ear.
Externally there’s a microphone, fitted behind your ear, a sound processor and transmitter coil.
The internal part is inserted inside your skull during an operation. It picks up electrical signals from the external part and sends them to your cochlea, using electrodes that transmit the signals to the brain.
Most people have just one implant unless they are extra-reliant on hearing because of another disability.
What happens after the cochlear implant operation
You need to return to the implant centre for regular programming sessions to make sure the implant is providing meaningful sound for you. The charity Action on Hearing Loss cautions that it does take time to learn how to listen with an implant.
More information about cochlear implants
Read a fact sheet about cochlear implants at actiononhearingloss.org.uk