I love my hearing aids. I wear them every morning, afternoon and evening. Even overnight since they are extended wear. They help me hear the sounds around me, keeping me safe and allowing me to communicate with the people I love.
But what happens when your hearing aids catastrophically fail — on an overseas trip thousands of miles from home and your audiologist? You cry, you yell, you suffer and then you get on with it — turning to alternative forms of assistive listening technology. It was quite a learning experience.
On my recent trip to China, my hearing aids catastrophically failed. The first aid stopped working on the third day of the two-week trip and the other aid died two days later. Was it the heat — it was 105 °F with 95% humidity every day — or something else? I’ll probably never know.
When the first aid failed, we were touring an ancient Buddhist temple. I was enjoying the statues and murals, but could not hear the explanation from our tour guide. I had picked up a head cold on the plane ride over, so I wondered if that was the cause of the problem. I tried to adjust the volume higher, but when nothing happened, I realized my hearing aid was dead.
I was able to remove it from my ear (mine are worn deep in the ear canal) and stumbled along with lopsided hearing. It was challenging, but with some careful maneuvering (positioning my good ear towards anything I needed to hear) I was able to function moderately well.
When the other hearing aid stopped working two days later, I was the deafest I had ever been. And I still had 10 days of touring ahead of me. I was pretty upset.
I usually wear my hearing aids 24/7 so the transition to silence was eerie. But it actually wasn’t so quiet, because my tinnitus had kicked into overdrive. I felt myself instinctively withdrawing from conversation. The exhaustion of trying to keep up with the activities around me was overwhelming. I collapsed into bed at the end of my first soundless day.
I went into survival mode. What options did I have available? Since my hearing aids are extended wear and replaced regularly as part of subscription model, I don’t have a working back-up set of aids. This is something I vowed to change when I got home.
In China, hearing aids are sold at the local pharmacy. As someone who lives in the US, it was fascinating to see affordable hearing devices on display and ready for purchase at a store. Perhaps we will see this in the US as the OTC Hearing Aid Act comes to fruition. Among other benefits, it would make it much easier to have an affordably priced back up pair of hearing aids to use in a pinch.
There were several options at the store, some by names I recognized like ReSound and Siemens. The prices ranged from $300 to over $1000 per aid. While I was tempted to give one a try, the language barrier made it impossible to assure proper programming so I decided to pass.
I reached out to my HLAA network for suggestions and learned about several apps that would let me use my iPhone microphone as a hearing aid. I purchased a pair of in-ear noise-canceling headphones and used them in combination with the EarMachine app. You can see me using this system in the post photo.
While it was not perfect by any means, this work-around did allow me to hear our tour guides (as long as I was standing close to them and pointing my phone’s microphone at them) and converse with my traveling companions at meals. It was a life saver.
What did this experience teach me? Always have a back-up plan. I guess even advocates have to learn the hard way sometimes…
Readers, have your hearing aids ever catastrophically failed?