Three Weeks With Hearing Aids

December 2nd, 2016
Calcium, NY

I’ve known for many years that my hearing sucked.  I had long attributed this to my four years of active duty in the Army in the early 1980s, but I later saw an audiogram taken when I first joined the Army and there was marked hearing loss even then.  I know I had a lot of ear infections as a kid, but lots of kids have those without much hearing loss.  I shot 22s (and an occasional 45 or 12-gauge shotgun) a lot as a teen and never used hearing protection, but none of my friends I shot with had hearing damage from that.


I got by okay on a day-to-day basis, but have issues with rooms full of people, meetings, and soft voiced people.  I can deal with most patients, but have issues with soft-spoken people like those suffering depression and the occasional sullen teen.  Cruelly, there are nurses at work who would be thrilled to see me get hearing aids and regularly encourage me to do so.  They are mean people.

I had to get a waiver when I rejoined the Army Reserves 5 years ago.  I had to be “med boarded,” but the more years you have in, the shittier your hearing can be and they still keep you around.  For once age (and longevity in the Army) worked in my favor.

Tricare is the medical insurance for military personnel, but it comes in different flavors depending on your status.  I had Tricare Prime (best medical insurance anywhere) while mobilized last year, and now for 6 months post-mob.  Hearing aids are not a covered benefit for Tricare for reservists, nor for retirees and the VA will only cover them if your hearing loss is service-related, so I thought I would follow through with seeing the audiologist at Fort Drum as, if I needed hearing aids, I could get ~5k worth now, something I would not ever again be covered for.

I dislike audiologists.  They are mean, hateful, people who make you take tests on which you do shitty, say bad things about your hearing, and place unfortunate things in your medical record that cause unnecessary complications for your military career.  This one, Troy, while seemingly a very nice guy who spent a lot of time with me, pronounced my hearing somewhere between “significantly” and “profoundly” impaired, and recommended hearing aids.  Then put all that in my military medical record.  See?  This is why I dislike audiologists!

But he was actually a really nice guy and willing to work with me.  I could try one kind of hearing aid and, if I didn’t like it, get another.  And another.  And so on.  So I caved and he ordered some behind-the-ear models that are pretty tiny, saying this type was superior to the more cosmetically pleasing in-the-ear type.  Retail on these babies is about $4,500.

I picked ‘em up the Thursday before the long Veteran’s Day weekend.  Troy fitted them and programmed them and walked me through use, control, cleaning, etc.  The only quirk was that my fairly short hair tickled the microphone over the ear as I talked or moved my jaw around.  Troy offered two choices:  Grow my hair longer (not really an option as I’m still in the Reserves), or get it cut even shorter.  So that Friday I got a close shearing and that problem went away.

That first weekend was interesting.  Some things like the creaking of hardwood floors, crumpling of paper, or smacking of bare feet on the floor sound decidedly loud, though I can’t tell if this was the hearing aids over-amplifying or maybe this is just the way these things sound and I haven’t heard it that way in decades.  I had no real issue with vanity going various places that weekend.  Looking in the mirror I typically thought “Wow, that’s a really short haircut!” rather than “Look at those hearing aids!”

The bluetooth is different.  There is a little gizmo about 1×1.5” that communicates with the hearing aids through some mysterious protocol, but also can pair to bluetooth devices.  If no bluetooth is involved, it can crank up or down the amplification of the aids.  From the mid-point you can go up or down five steps. With bluetooth paired, I can stream audio from a phone or computer.  I can also make or receive calls on my phone (the gizmo has a speaker as well).  But with bluetooth streaming, the hearing aid microphones are defeated and the audio is directly from the streaming device, which gives a very different audio effect.  This is particularly annoying when using smart phone navigation.  Each time the phone talks to you, the audio changes for about 10 seconds, then changes back.  It’s pretty disconcerting.

There is also a bluetooth smartphone app.  As an inveterate geek, I had great hopes for being able to control the hearing aids and change their frequency response.  No such luck.  You can adjust volume (which resets once bluetooth disconnects, making it useless), and test each individual hearing aid for sound, but little else.  You can check the bluetooth gizmo for battery, but not the aids themselves.  Also, the gizmo has exceptionally short range.  In a shirt pocket it is too far away to work – it has to be clipped to a collar.  That’s okay when driving around, but not so much when in a professional work environment.

The first week in clinic was interesting.  Several people didn’t even notice I was wearing them until day 2 or 3.  My boss didn’t notice until I mentioned it three weeks later.  I definitely hear better in crowded rooms (like the team room I work in) and find that I much prefer wearing them to not.  The single biggest issue, however, is using a stethoscope,  The earpieces of the stethoscope drive the hearing aids right into the eardrums which is decidedly painful.  Hearing impaired clinicians needing to use stethoscopes would seem a not small market, but are apparently limited.  Littmann, the name in stethoscopes, makes a digital version with bluetooth, but they limit the bluetooth capability to smart phones and tablets, as hearing aids do not do well with low frequency sound reproduction which is important for auscultation of heart sounds.  The Thinklabs One is a promising digital scope that uses standard stereo headphones and has good low frequency response, but costs $500.   Troy promised to order me a Cardionics scope, but, with no idea when it might arrive, I bought the Thinklabs One and it is prety nice.  And damned well ought to be for the price.

But the real epiphany was that first Thursday night, a week after getting the aids.  It suddenly dawned on me (duh!) that I hadn’t really explored listening to music with them.  Sure the radio in the car, but not really listening in a quiet environment.  So I played some of my favorite stuff at home, first on my laptop, then on my not-so-very-expensive desktop computer speakers.  Wow.  What a difference.  The bass had always been there, but not the treble.  It dawned on me that much of this music I had likely never heard correctly before.

One other quirk.  I think over the decades I have quit trying to pay attention to conversations on the other side of the room.  It never paid off, so why bother?  Now that I can hear them I find I have to try to not ignore them.  That’s a little different.

Bottom line:  If I don’t think about them, I hear better and enjoy life more. If I think about ’em, it makes me feel old. C’est la vie.