My love affair with hearing aids (and the professionals who fit them)

By Gael Hannan

Gael Hannan takes us through the ups and downs of her 46-year relationship with hearing aids. The start was a rocky one, but it soon became a love affair.

It wasn’t love at first sound.

My first hearing aid was loud and ugly: two disappointing strikes against something I had been waiting for since childhood.

It was 1975 and I was 21 years old. The hearing aid dispenser pushed and prodded the standard, “flesh-tone” device into place. Shortly after, she pushed me out onto the street saying, as God is my witness, “Now go forth and hear!”

I lasted for the rest of the day before throwing the offensive piece of plastic and wires into a drawer for the obligatory week or two of exile. 

A rocky start

What saved my hearing aid (and me) was that I really wanted to hear better. My congenital hearing loss was progressive: at age 21 it was moderate, and it would ultimately become profound.

But ENTs had always told my parents that hearing aids wouldn’t help me – and it’s probably true that those early, clunky devices weren’t suitable for my then mild hearing loss. But doctors saying “no” year after year fueled my desire to have just one of them say “yes, let’s try it.” Finally, one otolaryngologist did.

A month later, when the dispenser presented me with the long-anticipated hearing aid, she explained how it worked, sort of. I’m sure she told me how to put the battery in, but not that it should be removed at night to prevent corrosion of the device (or my brain). She may have told me that my new world would be brutally loud at first, but that this would pass. But that was it for comprehensive and empathetic counseling!

As I prepared to “go forth,” I felt a growing sense of betrayal of expectations. Why did I think this would be a good thing? Compounding this nervousness, when I stepped out onto the busy Toronto street, I was brutally assaulted by a harsh hurricane of sound. I started crying – I hatedmy new hearing aid.

Somehow, I got back on track and was soon wearing the device every waking hour. But did my attitude towards it improve? Did I live better with my hearing loss? Not for a long time.

Gripped by stigma

My problem was not with what a hearing aid actually does – I enjoyed the new sounds it gave me. But I was grieved with how it looked (I detest beige) and even more by what it meant. Wanting to hear better was one thing, but the visual presence of a hearing device now defined me as “a Person with a Problem”! I was gripped by the stigma of hearing loss, assuming that people thought less of me because of it.

My early HCPs, in their enthusiasm for hearing aids, did not help me address the pain of this stigma or suggest other, complementary communication strategies.

And no, I didn’t ask them, because it never occurred to me to ask about something I knew almost nothing about.

You’re allowed to ask that stuff? Audiologists were supposed to help me with my hearing loss life, not just how well I actually heard with my device? I have to take responsibility for my own hearing loss, including my self-view that would influence how other people viewed me?

OMG, what concepts! Yet, ones that slowly took root in my beliefs and actions since the days of that first clunky beige device.

Finding the right audiologist

Hearing aids are of course more sophisticated and effective now. Even though I still have no real idea how they work, I see them as miraculous things of beauty because my attitude towards my hearing loss has taken a 180-degree turn.

My hearing loss is part of who I am, and far from being a lesser person, I see myself as a greater person because of the creative and mental skills I’ve developed to deal with my communication challenges. And those skills include the ability to choose the right audiologist.

Over the years, almost every audiologist I have met has been passionate about their job, even those who joke they got into the field because it was the shortest sign-up line for graduate school.

But not every audiologist is the right one for me. I need a professional who can explain things in a way that my right-brain personality understands, who creatively engages with me and who accepts the wisdom I bring to the table. Also someone who can handle occasional grumpiness and emotion.

These days, those audiologists are not hard to find. Audiology training is better. Technology is better. Professional supports are better.

I LOVE my audiologists – I work with two hand-picked Queens of Audiology: one for my hearing aids and one for my cochlear implant and tinnitus. I have audiologist friends who help me with my advocacy work and writing. My relationships with hearing care professionals are crucial to my well-being and so I try to show my gratitude for their expertise and care. (I hope they are reading this.)

Forty-six years ago, a hearing aid dispenser worked with the science of her time to give me the best device available. It was the start – if a rocky one – of a lifelong love affair.