by Tracy Jones Blair
Born with a bilateral, sensory-neural and conductive hearing loss, Tracy relied on auditory training combined with visual cues and speechreading to help her to “hear” all her life. Her most severe loss was in the middle frequencies (affecting speech understanding). Correctly diagnosed at age five and with the help of highly observant and determined parents, teachers, audiologists and therapists, she was able to successfully mainstream into public education. In high school, she became an award-winning competitor in extemporaneous persuasive speaking, enjoyed choir, jazz and tap dancing. Graduating in the top ten of her class, she went on to complete a bachelor’s degree in Speech Communication at Texas Christian University, where she was sorority member and recipient of various honors. She obtained her master’s degree in Educational Psychology at Texas Tech University. She worked in various communications capacities at Texas Tech University, University of North Texas Health Sciences Center, and Alcon Laboratories, Inc. After a brief sabbatical to care for family, she dabbled real estate sales. Tracy worked hard to assimilate into the hearing world and performed well. Most people could not detect her hearing loss.
Tracy and her husband of 12 years live in Fort Worth, Texas. They enjoy spending time with Craig’s grown children, Nick, Andie, Ashley and her husband, Greg, and their “Grands,” Abby and Henry.
By Tracy Jones Blair
It was the summer of 2012 and I was embarking on my real estate career after taking a four-year sabbatical to care for terminally ill family. I loved working with people and I was looking forward to this new venture!
One day, I returned home from a showing and noticed a roaring noise occurring mostly in my left ear. I attributed it to a mild annoyance. The next day, it came while I was driving my car. This time, it was a little louder! Again, the following day, it roared off and on, as I drove my car. I concluded that my tires were “singing” on my car. A tire change and $800 later, the roaring came back and continued more frequently. To no avail, that ROAR would not leave me. Something was seriously wrong!
It finally dawned on me that this annoyance was tinnitus, a sign of declining hearing. Upon this realization, I immediately sought an urgent ENT specialist appointment to get my ears checked. The earliest I could get was in a week, but it was already too late. My doctor concluded that I contracted a virus of unknown origin that affected the weakest nerves in my left ear.
This was my most-feared nightmare! Reeling from a series of hurtful and tragic losses over a period of five years, I was absolutely devastated! “This couldn’t be!” I said to myself, “I loved the music of life too much!”
Empowered with that determination and resolve my late parents always encouraged and the loving support of my husband, I sought to get the best help available. I had no desire to withdraw from life or to learn sign language… I had worked too hard to live and function a hearing world and NOTHING was going to take that away from me!
Since age five, I had worn only one analog hearing aid in my left ear, the ear with the best speech interpretation in a noisy environment. Although I had the same degree of hearing loss in both ears, I had always had difficulty wearing an analog hearing aid in my right ear as all the sounds overrode the ever-important speech sounds. On the contrary, I could use an amplified phone with the right ear as it directed only speech to that ear, without picking up the interfering background noise. To my horror, I now had to wear two hearing aids! My analog-trained brain struggled with adjusting to the tinny, robotic sounds of the new hearing aids equipped with digital technology. I tried brand after brand and there was little improvement. For the first time in my life, I actually felt truly deafened.
I resigned my REALTOR® role in July of 2013 to focus on resolving my hearing issues. I changed audiologists and went through the whole scenario again and again. Still, there was no satisfactory outcome. I did not qualify for a cochlear implant as the FDA required a profound hearing loss in both ears. I was forced to settle for less than optimal functionality. Life, as I had known it, was ending. I felt useless and lifeless. I was angry with God and the world for allowing this to happen! This excruciating and frustrating process lasted for 2½ more years.
In May of 2014, my left ear hearing took an even sharper nosedive. My audiologist informed me that the FDA recently changed the cochlear implant guidelines to include adults with a significant loss in just one ear. Candidacy required a hearing loss threshold over 40 decibels at all frequencies and word understanding scores at less than 50% with optimally fitted hearing aids. My dark and dismal world now had a little shimmer of light.
I asked for the very best surgeon available and was referred to The Dallas Ear Institute for further testing. Three months later, I took the qualifying audiological test, which determined that I could enter the first phase of a series of preliminary tests to determine my candidacy. Preliminary testing included an otologic medical evaluation, MRI, auditory / verbal evaluation, neuropsychology evaluation, balance testing, and finally, a thorough medical exam by my primary doctor. This took about four months.
During the time between testing appointments, I interviewed cochlear implant recipients and representatives from all three cochlear implant manufacturers. I also extensively researched the surgical procedures, features and benefits of each product and tracked FDA manufacture defects and recalls. My previous careers in medical education and the pharmaceutical industry prepared me well for this and helped in my selection of the cochlear implant brand.
I met some amazing people in the process and was deeply inspired by those who traveled this journey. I was also reminded of the risks I would be taking as not everyone is successful with the procedure. At first, I was fearful, but as I learned more and saw more successful recipients, my fear faded. I became more willing to take these risks to get my life back…even if it meant possible partial facial paralysis, bacterial meningitis, cochlear damage, complete loss of hearing, cerebrospinal fluid leakage, permanent vertigo, tinnitus, taste disturbances, etc. I had an adaptable cochlear anatomy, well-developed auditory skills, generally good health, a highly skilled surgeon and an astute audiologist, which increased my chances for a successful outcome.
I was implanted February of 2015 and activated a month later. At first, the sound echoed strangely in my ear. The sound was overwhelming. I was assured, with program adjustments, it would get better over time.
The next several months, I underwent auditory therapy to map my brain (i.e., re-learn language sounds). Three months later, sitting next to my auditory therapist, I repeated several paragraphs read to me without the benefit of lip-reading or the use of the hearing aid in my right ear. I missed 18 words out of the whole series. I was determined to work until I could get 95-100% of the words correct. It took a few more months. I was picking up sounds I had never heard before and many things sounded very different than before. My brain was like a baby’s brain… observing, learning and absorbing it all. For the first time in a long time, I was able to clearly hear my husband’s speech without looking his direction. I could even decipher some of the lyrics in music I had heard, but not understood all my life. A whole new world was slowly beginning to blossom.
For most, this brain mapping and program adjustment process takes only six months to a year. Being the perfectionist I am, it took me two and a half years to reach optimal functionality. I worked with two different audiologists, one for my cochlear implant and one for my hearing aid. My hearing aid was tuned down to allow the cochlear implant to dominate. I continued to take copious notes on what I could and could not hear in various settings and tweaked the programming every 6 months. I listened to talk radio daily to train my brain and improve my speech interpretation. I first started using a captioned phone at home. Then, I moved on to Bluetooth streaming to assist with phone calls. Eventually, I trained myself to listen on the cell phone without the assistance of a captioning or Bluetooth streaming. Practice makes perfect! Pushing myself to exceed expectations as I have always done, I had once again attained success in communication!
I am more relaxed in my life now and find myself smiling more frequently. My heart is overflowing with much joy! Pictures show that my posture has even improved, as I am not leaning in to hear anymore. With the right acoustics, I can now hear my husband clearly from 50 feet away… a marriage-saver indeed! I am enjoying my friends and family once again. Background noise is still sometimes problematic, but it is much better than it was with hearing aids. I am now ready to re-engineer my talents and skills for endeavors focused on communications. Mostly, I am very, very grateful to God for this precious gift of a full life of hearing and beautiful music for the soul!