The Funny Things on my Ears

by Michelle Hu Lapid

Pediatric Audiologist & Bilateral Cochlear Implant Recipient

If you told my mother 30 years ago that her daughter would graduate high school and college with honors, she actually might have had some doubts. This is because, thirty years ago, when the doctors confirmed my hearing loss, they also told her that I would likely not go beyond a 3rd grade reading level.

How could I have a hearing loss? I was born without complications and there was no history of congenital hearing loss on either side of the family. I was the constant talker of the family and even completed tasks/requests that were directed towards my older brother in Chinese (which he conveniently chose to ignore).

My hearing loss was first noticed by my preschool teacher during story time – she told my mom that I would sing to myself while she read books during story time. I was diagnosed with mild sensorineural hearing loss and fit soon after with my first pair of hearing aids. WOW! I could hear the birds chirping, the shower running, garage door opening and crayons rustling in the box. MRI scans confirmed bilateral enlarged vestibular aqueducts (EVA). This lent to a progressive hearing loss that worsened periodically, especially if I hit my head – usually just from being active on the playground. By the age of 10 years old, my hearing loss had progressed to a profound degree in both ears.

I was creative and confident. When asked what are those “funny things on your ears?” I could say they were radios for music or ear warmers in the winter time. Most of the time, I told them the truth – they were hearing aids and they helped me hear. I loved them and wore them because I knew they made the world sound better and brighter. While I had a wonderful, active, family and friend filled childhood – I did have some difficult situations. Movie theaters, talking on the phone, lunchtime at school and birthday parties (especially when kids wanted to play the telephone game) were all frustrating.

While I was likely a cochlear implant candidate since I was young, I actually did not receive my first CI (left) until I was 25 years old and my second 3 years later. What a journey. I was enrolled full-time in school to earn my Doctorate of Audiology at the time, specifically in a class to learn about what cochlear implants were. I was telling my dad about the technology when he told me I had been a candidate for a while. What! I never knew that there was anything better for me beyond hearing aids. He and my mom had simply not been ready, they didn’t trust the technology and I was doing “so well” in school. Since I was under my parents’ insurance for one more year – my dad proposed, “What about getting a cochlear implant for your left (worse) ear now?” If it could help me even just a little bit (which by then I already knew it would) it was worth the try.

Surgery, anesthesia, blood and new technology didn’t scare me…but change did. Would I like it? Would I hate it? Is it really a good decision? Is it a “what’s best for me,” decision that I would hate the whole way through? I already knew how to be assertive, how to deal with my hearing loss with my own tools. I was comfortable. I knew I needed to talk to more people who had received cochlear implants themselves. I spoke to a few other recipients and I could tell they could hear more little things than I could. This is what motivated me. I wanted to hear the birds again. I wanted to hear the water running. I wanted to be able to have conversations in a dark car. I wanted to hear what my girlfriends were talking about in the echoic bathrooms. I wanted to be involved in conversations and to hear the small remarks or inside jokes muttered under people’s breath.

Surgery came and went smoothly. The most difficult part for me was being unable to wash my hair for a week afterwards since I had to keep the bandages on. When activation day finally came, I was ready. I had heard and read about many individual experiences, how different each one was so I was excited for my own. My classmate was on her CI rotation and was at the computer for my activation. Initially things sounded like a movie dream. It was as if the sounds were stretching long and short, somewhat “wompy” for lack of a better word choice! Nothing was clear; everything was coming in at the same level. My mom’s voice and the printer were the same volume. I was smiling but was baffled at the same time. Against a typical CI activation protocol, I asked if I could go into the sound booth to see at what levels I could hear with my new ear. For some reason I started clicking the response button rapidly. Was the clinician trying to trick me because I knew how a hearing test was run? Oh my gosh – I could hear the clicker in my hand each time I pushed the button! Tears filled my eyes and I was filled with wonder at the new world around me. As the weeks went by I was excited to figure out what each sound was. I could hear my shoes on the carpet as I walked (no wonder my kindergarten teachers would tell me to pick up my feet as I walked!). I would sit outside in our yard listening to crickets, hummingbirds, dragonflies – I couldn’t believe how noisy and “annoyingly awesome” the world was. It was difficult taking my hearing aid off to push and practice with my new CI side but it was worth it.

Since then I’ve graduated, I moved across the nation independently and confidently to become a pediatric audiologist. I received my second CI in Southern California. My hearing confidence has allowed me to live my life the way I’ve always dreamed. I got to check off my most desired bucket list item of completing culinary school. I’m able to converse on the phone with strangers. I’ve met and married my best friend. I get to FaceTime with my adorable niece Maddy who lives in NYC. I’m even a passionate non-toxic skincare consultant on the side. My hearing world is so colorful and I wouldn’t wish for it to be any other way.