Cochlear Implant Helps Deaf-Blind Recipient Make ‘Contact with Reality’

Cochlear Implant Helps Deaf-Blind Recipient Make ‘Contact with Reality’

Cochlear Implant Helps Deaf-Blind

Recipient Make ‘Contact with Reality’

By Michelle Smithdas

Special to ADVANCE

I am an instructor in the Communications Department at the Helen Keller National Center (HKNC), headquartered in Sands Point, NY. I teach braille to the students who are deaf-blind and are enrolled in this unique rehabilitation training, job preparation and job placement program.

I have served as a role model and mentor to many of the students.

Born hard of hearing, I became totally deaf at age 15. After a snowmobile accident during my senior year at Gallaudet Univer-sity, in Washington, DC, I lost my vision. I am married to Dr. Robert J. Smithdas, HKNC assistant director, who is also deaf-blind.

In the summer of 1993, I inquired about a cochlear implant. Following a thorough investigation, I decided to have the surgery. Even if I couldn’t understand speech after the implant, I would be able to hear some environmental sounds–any sounds. Being deaf-blind is very lonely.

One month after surgery, my precious implant was turned on. At first I wasn’t sure what I was hearing. Then I realized it was my husband Bob’s voice. Just knowing that he was talking and that I could hear him for the very first time ever was thrilling, even though I could not understand what he was saying.

It was obvious from the beginning that the cochlear implant would help to decrease my sense of isolation.

I was now able to hear when a person came into my “space.” I became aware of what was happening all around me. It’s wonderful to have contact with reality. This may seem strange, but I also have more confidence being in the dark now.

In the beginning, I would practice listening to sounds and trying to identify them, like the tea kettle whistling, the pressure cooker steaming, the microwave and computer buzzing. In church I discovered that I could participate in the recitation of the prayers. I can hear the bells ring when the priest offers the chalice, and I can respond appropriately.

Of course, I tell Bob when the lecturer is speaking or if a baby “hollers” in the back, so he will be aware, too. I hear the door creaking open when the service begins, and I can stand up when the priest speaks. Can you imagine how good it feels to be more involved with whatever is going on around me?

Bob and I own a home in Port Washington and like our neighbors. Bob is always making repairs and tending to broken pipes, sticky windows and more. But now I can hear water running in the kitchen or bathroom, and that means no more floods!

Since I can hear the telephone and alarm clock ring, I no longer need to wear my pager. I have a frame of reference for finding where Bob is located in the house, because I can hear him walking around–a big timesaver.

The beauty of a grandfather clock’s chimes and the quacking of ducks are so meaningful. When our driver or a taxi arrives at the end of our driveway to take us to work or shopping, I can actually hear them approaching.

During the Christmas holidays, my husband and I took a cruise to Mexico, accompanied by Bob’s sister and her husband. Every night we danced up a storm, and I clapped wildly to the music. The trumpet player, my favorite, came through loud and clear.

Even dining was a pleasure. A simple thing like the clinking noise of ice cubes dropping into a glass or the sound of the wind blowing at sea intensified my experience.

An unexpected benefit has been an improvement in my balance. It was very evident when I walked down the gangplank from the boat to the dock without stumbling.

Just recently a friend of mine told me I seemed “more alive” and my face seemed to have more “animation.” I do feel more alive, not so quiet and isolated, and definitely more in contact with the world. I can go with the flow of things. It’s rather exciting to know that there’s so much noise around me!

Each individual is different, and one can’t expect miracles. But this cochlear implant has had a tremendous impact on my life as a woman, a teacher and a loving wife.

* About the author: Smithdas is an instructor in the Communications Department at the Helen Keller National Center, headquartered in Sands Point, NY.