Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Suddenly going nearly deaf in one ear March 21, 2011

THE ELDERLY COUPLE stood in line next to me at the pharmacy gripping their skinny white canes.

He fidgeted, a plastic grocery store bag rustling in his hands. I wondered how much he could see through the thick lenses of his glasses.

She waited beside him. Calm. Steady. Sure. I doubted she could see me, only sense that I was there, close by.

I considered for a minute allowing them ahead of me. But I’d already returned for the second time to the pharmacy and didn’t want to give up my spot.

So I stood there, health insurance and debit cards clenched in my right hand, arms folded across my chest. I did not want to be there sandwiched between the mom with a clearly sick child and the visually-impaired couple. But, mostly, I did not want to be there because I did not want the prescription drugs I was picking up.

Eight hours earlier I laid on my back, head strapped down, face covered with a mask, as my head and upper body slid inside a magnetic resonance imaging machine.

Several hours after that, I sat in a sound-proof booth getting my hearing tested.

A half hour later I braced myself for the MRI results, hoping for the best, semi-prepared for the worst. The news was good. No tumor. No stroke. No anything abnormal, the ear specialist told me. I breathed deeply, the release of tension in my body palpable.

But the hearing, that was different. I had lost most of the hearing in my right ear. I had “one shot,” the doctor told me, to restore some of my hearing. There were no guarantees.

That is when I cried, although the tears had been building since the audiologist pointed to a graph showing that I had lost 70 percent of the hearing in my right ear. I verged on tears when she told me, too, that a hearing aid would not help me.

I listened to the doctor tell me that a 10-day mega dose of steroids could possibly restore some of my hearing. No promises. The Prednisone is most effective within 48 hours of symptom onset. Four days had passed since my symptoms—sudden hearing loss and eight hours of dizziness and nausea—began.

“You’ll cry some more,” he said, explaining that the steroid will throw me into emotional mood swings, cause insomnia, make me jittery, maybe even nauseated. He minced no words: The treatment course “will be difficult.”

And then I asked, “Is it worth it?”

He told me this was my “one shot” to regain some of my hearing.

Do you know how difficult it is to photograph one's ear? This is my best shot after many attempts. I could have done without the photo, but images always add to a blog. So there you have it, my right ear that I am hoping, praying, will be healed. Yes, I see the wax. Yes, I know my ear is not petite. Typically it's draped by my hair. But I don't care about lack of prettiness right now. I care only that I get some, or all, of my hearing back.

AND SO I FOUND MYSELF waiting in line at the pharmacy, next to the visually-impaired couple. As I watched them, I asked myself, “Would you rather be blind or deaf?” I don’t mean to offend any of you readers, but that is, honestly, what I was thinking.

The debate swirled briefly through my brain. As the store clerk placed the visually-impaired woman’s hand on a bottle and told her it was fish oil, I chose deafness. I determined that I would rather deal with the loss of hearing in one ear than lose my ability to see.

And so the next 10 days will reveal whether a portion of my hearing can be salvaged. Ten days. I am trying to steel myself for the negative physical and emotional side effects I am certain to experience from the high steroid dosage. I’ve been on the drug before, for whooping cough. I hate it.

I am trying to prepare myself, too, for the very real possibility that this course of treatment will not work—because I waited too long. I did call my clinic within an hour of the symptom onset, but was advised only to come in if my condition worsened. Within several hours, I was feeling better, although my hearing had not improved.

I thought I might be suffering a Meniere’s disease attack related to a previous ear trauma as my symptoms matched those of Meniere’s.

I am writing this post because I need your prayers for healing and strength through my treatment.

I am also writing to warn you that, should you ever experience sudden hearing loss, see a doctor immediately. Don’t wait. Ever. I waited four days to schedule a clinic appointment, another day to get in and then another day to have the MRI and get the diagnosis.

My ear doctor saw several patients just this week with the same sudden sensory hearing loss, leading him to believe a viral infection of some type is going around the Faribault community.

Since developing this issue, I’ve had several friends tell me of acquaintances who’ve suffered the same snap-of-the-finger hearing loss. One regained her hearing; two did not.

The cause of my sudden sensory hearing loss has not been determined. I’m following up with another specialist in several weeks, the same expert I’ve seen since that traumatic ear injury at a Wisconsin water park several years ago.

In the meantime, I am adjusting to the ringing and static (like a bad transistor radio) and partial deafness that are now a part of my world.

I am learning to position myself with my “good” left ear to anyone who is speaking to me.

And I am holding on to hope.

FOLLOW-UP: Today I started my fourth day of steroid treatment. Thus far I’ve noticed no improvement in my hearing. But I am still hopeful that some of my hearing may be restored. Many family and friends are praying for me and for that I am grateful.

I am feeling the effects of taking the Prednisone. Yesterday afternoon and into the evening, I was unsettled and sat twirling my hair, which is not a regular habit of mine. I had trouble falling, and staying, asleep.

Yet, through all of this, I remain cognizant that this diagnosis could have been something far worse than a hearing loss. In the realm of possible medical issues, this is minor.

If, by telling my story, I can prevent one person, even one, from delaying treatment for a sudden sensory hearing loss, then something good will have come from this.

Seven more days to go…

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling