Dr. Raffeal insists I need a new hearing test before she makes a mold inside my right and left ears to fit me with a new pair of hearing aids guaranteed to improve my hearing.
She looks me in the eyes, talks in a professional tone, and says, “There are three generation improvements over the ones you are wearing which hook behind the ears.” I agree. Reluctantly. The cost, in the stratosphere. The price of a child’s nursery school tuition!
Masks continue to be necessary in our city. They hook over the ears, and tangle with hearing aids which anchor behind the ear. These thin elastic bands now cause hearing aids to fly out where they can land on any available surface, the pavement, the sewer, behind the toilet, under the bin of zucchinis at the supermarket. Then a frantic search might involve the owner of the establishment I was in, as well as helpful people nearby who might, if they were so inclined, bend down, noses to the floor, and look for the missing object. This was if I was lucky. Sometimes, the hearing aids popped out as I was exiting an elevator and the device fell down into the elevator shaft. Another time it slipped out as I was crossing a busy street. The device might be just feet behind me but so were ten honking cars. There was every possibility it could fall into a puddle on the sidewalk, pop out at the beach, or tumble into an open slat on the Boardwalk.
Hearing tests were not new to me. Until five years ago it wasn’t even possible for audiologists to aids. I have been at this for a long time. Seven decades later my hearing loss was first detected.
All sixth graders at Rowen elementary school were sent to have hearing tests. We were marched in a line into the gym where long tables had been pushed together to form a circle. Big metal boxes with cords curling out from them like black snakes sat on the tables. Attached to the cords were earphones which fit over our ears. A round disc, attached to the cords, sat on the table. In the center of the disc was a round pop-up button.
The gym was where we were sent for recess on rainy days. Sounds of children shouting and screaming and running into each other, and the staccato noises of basketballs knocking the hard floor rattled my ears. But today was different.
The gym was quiet, hushed.
"Press this button when you hear a noise," the man with a kind face said. He sat on the opposite side of the table behind the box.
Before I sat down, I noticed small dials on the boxes, on the side facing the man,
like ones on a radio. There were none on my side. I listened closely to many high and low sounds. I pressed the button when I heard a sound. I was a good listener, my teachers said. I liked school, but every test worried me. Did I pass? Did I fail? This was different. We weren't getting grades. This was easy. I would probably pass.
Our class left the gym just as we had entered, boys in one line, girls in another. From the smallest to the tallest, we marched back to our busy homeroom bright with high windows. Above the chalkboard hung watercolor pictures of Spring our class had painted last week. My picture of daisies was in the middle. On each desk lay a lined paper from the day we wrote stories. My paper had a big letter A+ on the wide margin at the top of my story. I was happy.
Several weeks later, my parents told me they were taking me to a doctor who specializes in hearing. When I asked why, they said the school reported I hadn't done well on the hearing test. The doctor they were taking me to would give me another hearing test.
"It's always something, with you," my mother said. "First you get Undulant Fever, end up in the hospital, and now this. You've given me nothing but trouble since the day you were born.”
Clearly, I had made a mistake, but I was puzzled. I had done just what they had told me. Hadn't I seen enough doctors when I was six-years- old and sick with Undulant Fever and they put me in two different hospitals for six months and stuck needles in my arms and fingers and bottom? I was terrified then and I was nervous now. I didn't want to go.
"Maybe the school hasn't gotten it right,” my father said. “We want to check it out."
My father always made me feel better.
Dr. Williams' office was in downtown Philadelphia. My mother and I took the subway. While we waited on the platform, the wind and roar of passing trains was deafening. We sat together, side by side next to a window. However, the subway window was open as we sped through the darkness allowing the prolonged sound to attack my ears. My mother talked, but I couldn't hear what she was saying because the subway was making a terrible roar like ocean waves when they crash over the shores and take away all other sounds.
"What?" I said.
She said something.
"What?" I said.
She said something, again. She had an angry look on her face, one I knew well.
"What?" I said.
What's the matter with you?" she said. "Why do you keep saying, what? Don't you hear me?" Her eyes were sharp, like spikes. Her mouth settled into a grim line and she turned away.
I sat in Dr. Williams' office with my mother and father. Daddy had come from work and met us there. I listened to Dr. Williams explain hearing tests from behind his wide dark wood desk. His office looked like a nice library with books. We sat in tall leather chairs around his desk. There were no hospital looking instruments.
I was told a woman dressed in white like a nurse who was an assistant audiologist would give me a hearing test. She led me into a small colorless room where there was the same metal box they had at school, only much smaller, maybe the size of a radio. I could see the dials the woman was turning because I sat on a chair next to her. First, I checked the room for scary things. Standing in the corner was a strange pole-like machine on wheels with dangling clear tubes. I had never seen anything like this before and hoped it wasn't something they were going to use on me. The audiologist told me to press the round metal button as soon as I heard a sound. This was easy, just like school.
After the test, we gathered in Dr. Williams’ office. Dr. Williams was talking to my parents and even though I was listening I didn't understand what he was saying until he got to the art about giving me treatments. There was a very new thing called radium and it did wonderful things.
"This may improve her hearing," he said. "I'll show you what it looks like."
He opened a small safe on the floor near his desk and carefully removed a thin brass rod about six inches long, held it in his hand so I could see it. "We insert this into your nose for 10 minutes at each visit."
He kept talking. The rest of what he said was a blur, until he said, "It doesn't hurt."
That's what they always said and that meant it did hurt. Whatever this was, I didn't want to do it but I didn't have a choice. My parents would make me go. Only three times, I thought. Then it would be over.
For my first treatment, I went to a different colorless room where a nurse wearing a white uniform inserted half the rod up my nose. It hurt as she pushed it in even though Dr. Williams said it wouldn't. I knew I must have looked weird with a brass rod halfway up my nose and half sticking out.
The nurse set a timer for exactly ten minutes.
"I'll be back when the bell rings," she said. I wanted her to stay. I was afraid to be left alone. The door closed and she disappeared. I sat with this uncomfortable thing poked up my nose and hanging out of my nose in a bare room with nothing to look at but the pole-like thing in the corner. It had a thin clear tube and a blue bag attached near the top. What part of the body did they put the tube into? I was afraid if I didn't keep my eyes fastened to the timer, the moving hand would stop and they would never come back for me. The timer on the desk was small and white and looked like a clock with only one long arm that circled the black numbers. As it hit each number, the long arm hesitated, and I thought it might not move on.
I hated this nurse. I hated the smell. I hated the silence of four closed walls. The timer’s hand was taking forever to move from ten to one. I was afraid if I took my eyes off the moving hand, it would stop.
Finally, the bell rang. The hand stopped. Where was the nurse? I held my breath. The door opened. The nurse returned. She removed the rod. The inside of my nose hurt as she slowly removed it.
Every Monday for three weeks my mother and I rode the subway to
Dr. Williams’ office. On the last day they tested my hearing again to see if the treatments had helped. A different audiologist led me to the testing room and seated herself in front of the black box. Her face was thin and she had a long nose and frown lines between her eyes. She reminded me of Mrs. Smith, our teacher who put wriggling noisy boys in the closet as punishment and left them for a full five minutes.
I sat on the same hard chair next to the table with the black box and rubbery cords. The cords were attached to headphones and squeezed against my ears.
"Press the button when you hear a sound," she said.
This test was like the others. I heard a sound. I pressed the button.
I hoped I was pressing fast enough.
Suddenly, the audiologist looked up and turned her face to mine.
"You didn't hear that sound? A deaf person would have heard that!"
I hadn't liked this lady holding me captive in a strange colorless room. Now she looked like a witch. Hadn't I done everything right, hitting the cool dark metal button with my index finger as quickly as I could whenever I heard a sound?
Deaf. Deaf. Deaf. I didn't want to be deaf. That would be awful. It would be like having Undulant Fever again. Something would be wrong with me. Again. My mother would be angry. She got angry at me when I got sick and told me it was my fault I got sick with Undulant fever. She said I liked to be sick.
Now, I would press the button whenever I saw the audiologist's fingers touch the knobs ever so slightly. I pressed and pressed, even when there was no sound. It was clear I was failing. It was clear I was flunking a hearing test. My mother would be angry and unforgiving. She would say that I had done it to myself.
I hated this audiologist. I hated nurses. I hated doctors. They all wore white. After making me sit with a stupid radium rod stuck in my nose three times, this woman was telling me I was acting like a deaf person. Deaf, rang in my ears. I pressed the button. I hear. I hear. I hear! What would they do to me if I didn't hear?
Dr. Williams sat on the red leather chair behind his wide office desk. His brow was deeply wrinkled, a short gray beard under his chin. He wore rimless glasses. He talked and talked. My parents listened and listened. Finally, I heard.
"The audiologist's report shows the radium treatments improved her hearing very slightly."
I passed the test. I was safe. I had done what they wanted. They thought their smart and important treatments had improved my hearing. I could leave and never ever return.
But, Dr. Williams’s comment, “very slightly,” bothered me. I thought I was a better button presser than “very slightly.”
My mother chatted happily with Dr. Williams, telling him he was an excellent doctor. I knew she wanted him to like her. Dr. Williams smiled at me from behind his desk as if he wanted to be my friend. I didn't smile back. My face couldn't do it.
"You're such a pretty little girl," he said, pushing his chair away from the desk to make room for me, opening his arms wanting a hug. "Let's have a smile."
I stood at a safe distance and refused to go towards him. I was angry and I wanted to stay angry. I couldn't tell him his radium rod hadn't done the slightest bit of good. I saw no need to hug him. He hadn't made my hearing better. I had just led him to think that he had.
As we rode home in the car, my mother said, "He's such a kind, gentle man, and you weren't very nice. It wouldn't have killed you to hug him."
"She didn't have to," my father said, steering us through the narrow Philadelphia city streets.
Rows of brick houses passed by my window as I pictured Dr. Williams with his empty open arms. Had I hurt his feelings because I wasn't nice?
A few years later, an office visit to my family pediatrician revealed what might have caused my hearing loss.
Dr. Schless said, “The high fevers from Undulant Fever, (Brucelosis), might have
been the cause.” He paused. “Or, the drug they gave you, Streptomycin.”
He said the drug was used on four men in the battlefield during Worldwar ll.
I had the honor of being the first child to receive the toxic drug.
“Streptomycin is now given to tuberculosis patients however their hearing is continually monitored.”
Decades later I would learn, in my case, the nerves affected by the toxic drug are the ones responsible for high frequency sounds of violins, piccolos, and flutes. No wonder the woman giving me the hearing test in Dr. Williamshad said, “A deaf person would have heard that.”
Early one evening sometime during my Thirties, I waited in our car at the South Orange Train Station for my husband to arrive home from his office in New York City. Erica, my daughter and two friends, who I was driving home from school, sat with their books in the back-seat. As my husband entered the car, he anxiously asked, “What is that horrible sound?”
I answered, “What sound?”
Obviously, time for another hearing test which I scheduled in New York City with a prominent Doctor of Audiology, Dr. Marvin Lerner, whose office was fitted with an impressive state of the art enclosed sound-proof room. A door opened.
I stepped up into a gray-blue leather-like room padded on all four walls and ceiling. Earphones pressed against my ears. The door closed. Once again, I was told to press a button on the arm-rest. I was inside a padded cell!
After I emerged, I listened carefully for a solution from this famous doctor.
“There was nothing that could be done to help my deficit!”
The solution, Dr. Lerner said, as he looked directly at me and my husband, Steve.
“You need to sit in the first fifteen rows of the theater in the orchestra section!”
At the time, borrowed hearing devices, later installed, were not available. I left his office feeling dejected. No miraculous cure.
While we walked through the office hall toward the elevator, my husband commented, “That was the most expensive doctor’s visit I ever had!”
Now, five decades later, I wait in Dr. Raffeal’s audiologist’s office. She claims the new state of the art plastic ear-shaped globs with micro translators will provide me with better hearing. This new technology will bring my high frequency deficit into a lower range where I will hear clearer and better.
She shows me a sample pair, hands them to me to hold. I press their smooth round surface between my fingers. Where I once thought I was deaf, will I now enjoy high notes of violins, piccolos and flutes?
Two weeks later my new hearing aids arrive. At night, I place them into their small black case where a magnet grabs the small devices to hold in place while an electric wire charges them until morning. The next day, I twist them into my ears with a bit of adjusting, then hear, “Normal.”
The following afternoon, The Philadelphia Orchestra will perform a concert at Verizon Hall with Yannick conducting.
While listening to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, I hear brighter and clearer sounds. I’m not sure I hear the highest notes of the violins, flutes and piccBut, it doesn’t matter. A smile spreads across my face as I listen to the glorious music of Beethoven’s Ninth. The symphony sounds as if I am hearing it for the very first time.
Adele Greenspun is a writer and photographer. Picture books published. She is a Philadelphia-based writer and photographer and the author of four books: Daddies (Philomel), Bunny and Me (Scholastic), Ariel and Emily (Dutton Juvenile), and Grandparents are the Greatest Because (Dutton Juvenile). Her essays have been published in Grande Dame Literary Journal, Ladies Home Journal, McCalls, and Parents magazines. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1960, with a degree in Elementary Education. When she's not writing and taking photographs, she goes to Pilates, exercises, enjoys family, grandchildren and friends.
For more about her work, please go to view her books at www.adelearongreenspun.com and view her photographs go to: www.adelegreenspun.com