When Deafness Comes Suddenly

It happened rather suddenly.

We had just moved to Beijing, China, where my husband had been transferred for his job with the State Department. I was still getting used to a new house, a new language, new foods and new friends. I wasn't feeling well, but I figured it was just morning sickness—I'd recently discovered I was unexpectedly pregnant with my fourth child.

I was giving my then-15-month-old daughter a bath one night, wondering why they call it morning sickness when it seems to strike at night. I bent over to pick her up from the tub, and that's when it happened.

My ear made a popping sort of sound, and the room started to spin. I put my daughter in her crib, then went to bed myself and tried to sleep, wondering what had happened and when it would pass.

By morning I couldn't get out of bed. I was so disoriented that even shifting my eyeballs caused a wave of nausea. When I finally managed to stand, the nausea sent me staggering for the bathroom. I could hear nothing out of my right ear.

At the local hospital they hooked me up to an IV and peered into my ears. It was a puzzle. My ears were clear, so that meant there was no infection, and my temperature was normal. But I was deaf in one ear, nauseated, dizzy and scared.

They sent me home that afternoon with antinausea meds and a diagnosis of "sudden deafness syndrome"—which could have been caused by various problems, none of which was detected in me. They recommended I follow up with an ear, nose and throat specialist, but all of the ENTs were out of town for China's five-day National Day celebration. It would be at least a week before I could see one.

After a few days of intense sickness, during which I almost never moved from the couch, I was medevaced to Hong Kong by the State Department, as the ENTs in Hong Kong are supposedly better equipped to handle such emergencies. I kissed the kids goodbye, promising to return in three days. But three days turned into a month, as I was evaluated by various ENTs and an obstetrician, who gave me an ultrasound to make sure that the baby, eight weeks in gestation, was still growing safely inside of me. I had an MRI to rule out brain tumors and ultimately endured four shots of steroids, administered directly into my eardrum.

The shots were the only hope I had of restoring my hearing, according to my ENT, and they work in only about 30 percent of cases. So I sat still for each painful shot, then went back to my hotel room and held the phone to my right ear, pressing buttons randomly in the hope that I'd hear something other than the buzzing—a byproduct of deafness—that had begun to take over my brain.

But the shots didn't work. After a month in Hong Kong, during which the nausea slowly subsided but my hearing didn't improve, the doctors determined there was nothing they could do for me, and I returned to my family in Beijing.

This all happened five months ago. I'm now profoundly deaf in my right ear. And nobody has been able to tell me why, beyond speculating that I contracted some sort of strange virus. If the doctors are right, I'll never regain my hearing. All that is left is to learn to adapt to life with one good ear and nothing but a vicious buzz in the other.

As disabilities go, this isn't such a bad one. I can still hear, as long as I angle my head properly. I can walk, I can talk, I can see my kids every day. And my fourth child, the one kicking inside of me, was untouched by this mysterious virus of mine. So I maintain that I am blessed, despite the fact that I lost one vital ear.

My family is having more trouble adapting than I. My parents, far away in the States, call to see if I've experienced any improvement (I haven't) or if there is anything they can do (there isn't). My kids persist in calling to me from the next room, not realizing that I can't make out what they're saying. My husband gets frustrated when I can't decipher his words.

But me? I'm getting used to it. Sure, I'm running late most mornings, because if I roll onto my left side I can't hear my alarm clock go off. And it's embarrassing at parties, when people around me are laughing at some joke that I can't quite catch. It also makes my effort to learn Chinese even harder—I strain to hear my soft-spoken teacher.

Some things about this partial deafness of mine actually work quite well. When the kids are fighting over a toy, I can tune it out more easily, leaving them to resolve it for themselves. When my husband calls to me from the next room, needing my help with some project, I can continue reading my book, pretending I didn't hear him. When confronted by a boring guest at a party, I can plead deafness and move right along.

Sometimes, admittedly, I sit around bemoaning my fate. I'm too young to go deaf, I think, and this deafness of mine makes me feels as though I've suddenly aged. I needed to buy lotion the other day, and the sales lady, eager to please, commented on every product I picked up. I kept cupping my hand over my ear, asking her to repeat herself, until at last her eyes lit up with recognition, and she beckoned me to the back of the store. There, on the shelf, sat a product that proudly proclaimed, "for mature skin!" I stared speechless at the bottle before fleeing the store. I'm deaf; I'm not old.

For this thirtysomething mother, it seems somehow worse to be old than deaf. After just three months I'm learning to live without my hearing. But I'm starting to obsess about those crow's feet.

Gorman lives in Beijing.

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When Deafness Comes Suddenly | Culture