For about a week now, I’ve been 85% deaf (as opposed to my usual 50%). I seem to have acquired an infection or a swelling or some thing which has caused my good ear to feel clogged and useless. I’ve been walking around feeling like I’ve just jumped into a swimming pool and the world is muffled.
My nerves are a little frazzled lately, in part due to this ear thing. If you’ve ever gotten water in your ears, or had your ears pop in an airplane or something, you know how annoying it is when they don’t feel (and hear) right. You never think about how often people speak in hushed tones at work (or should I say gossip?) until you can’t hear them. Sitting at my desk and watching a co-worker mouthing the latest gripes and having no idea what she’s saying makes for some awkward moments. Worse yet is not being able to clearly hear my boss giving direction for a project.
Ok, who am I kidding, this happens even when my good ear IS working.
So you’re probably wondering what the problem is. Well, ear problems go hand in hand with cleft lip and palate, thanks to improper Eustachian tube function. Since infancy I had frequent ear infections. Every time I’d have surgery on my mouth, they would pop some tubes in my ears in an attempt to alleviate the ear issues. The tubes would always work their way out a short time later and the infections would return. Over time, my ear drums became heavily scarred from all the tubes and all the infections and subsequent ear drum ruptures.
When I was 9 years old, I had surgery on my left ear. I had been suffering from a chronic ear infection for years before that. I’m sure there was pain and hearing difficulty during those years but all I remember was the frequent dosing of antibiotics, or “bubble-gum medicine” as we called it, because it was bright pink and candy-flavored. So I was 9 years old and I had this surgery which was supposed to be an outpatient procedure. I think it was an exploratory surgery because the doctor we were going to couldn’t figure out what my problem was. So when they went in, they discovered that my inner ear was full of cholesteatoma, which as I was made to understand at the time, is basically a tumor made of skin. They opened up my ear from behind and removed all the cholesteatoma, along with bone and parts of my inner ear.
I woke up from the surgery with an incredibly sore neck. My head was wrapped in what felt like an enormous, heavy bandage. My parents were really upset and they told me then that the hearing in my left ear was gone. I don’t recall being sad about it. Considering the amount of cholesteatoma and the extent of the infection I had at the time, I probably hadn’t been able to hear well from that ear anyway.
A few days later we returned to the doctor so he could remove the bandage and take a look at my ear. I sat on my mom’s lap as he began unwrapping. As he pulled away the last bit of gauze, a gush of smelly fluid came out from behind my ear. Mom exclaimed concerns about fainting and the doctor exclaimed too – something along the lines of “Oh crap, that’s not good.” The incision had become infected. Back on antibiotics I went, and home I went with a hole in my head. It had to remain open until the infection cleared up.
Part of the infection-healing process was that my dad had to apply antibiotic ointment to the incision every day. My mom couldn’t bring herself to do it (and I don’t blame her). It was a hideous experience. When he would get home from work in the late afternoons, I would lie face down on the bed while he took a Q-tip and gently applied the antibiotics to the back of my ear. I hated every second of it and just thinking about it now makes me queasy.
Ultimately that infection healed and the wound was closed up. I missed the first week of 4th grade and, as you can see in the photo above, once I did return to school I still had the cotton ball and ointment going on for a while. Plus I was exhausted.
Sadly, that was not the end of the ear problems. The following summer I had to spend a week in the hospital for an intravenous antibiotic treatment to clear up further ear infection. By then we’d switched to another ear doctor because my parents were horrified that the previous one had missed the signs of cholesteatoma until it was nearly too late. For several years I had regular visits to the ENT to have my ear “suctioned”, which as you can imagine is not the most fun process. After a while, it was determined that my ear was okay and I could stop using ear drops and eventually I stopped visiting the ENT.
For the most part my ears were okay throughout my teens and 20’s. The occasional ear infection or wax buildup in my “good” ear would sent me to a doctor for treatment. It wasn’t until my 30’s that I finally decided to find a good ear doctor and find out what was going on in both ears.
Stay tuned for Part 2 – my adventures in ENT issues as an adult.