My Cyborg Ear: How a Surgeon and Titanium Cured My Lifelong Deafness

I've never been able to hear well. As a child, I was in and out of the hospital as doctors struggled to treat chronic ear infections that left me in throbbing pain and, eventually, relative silence. By the time I went to college, I had only one half-functioning ear drum and no hope of regaining the hearing I'd lost after years of damage. Surgery was too risky, the doctors said. This year, I decided to take the risk, and the results were extraordinary.

My Life of Quiet

Being partially deaf is an interesting experience. It turned my life into a guessing game, where I would wonder if I should do semi-dangerous things like ride a bike in New York City for fear that I might not hear a car behind me. I couldn't swim because water would leak into my inner ear. Social engagements were, well, challenging. At work, everyone thought I was a big grump—"brusque" was the word my boss used—because I usually couldn't hear what anybody was saying in meetings and failed to react. Dates were hilarious, especially when I met soft-spoken women in crowded bars.

I got pretty good at reading lips. I got great at nodding and smiling. I found myself always retreating into music, because good ear buds would pump sound waves straight past my broken ear drums, past those tiny bones, and straight to my brain by way of the auditory nerve which, luckily, managed to remain intact despite the infections. Bass felt good, because I could feel it.

My reality was a quiet one, peaceful even. The busy streets of Brooklyn never bothered me at night because I simply couldn't hear the car horns or the garbage trucks. It was easy to stay cool in tense conversations, because it simply didn't register when people raised their voices. Maybe I did become a little brusque over time. But I was luckier than many people with hearing loss. My right ear was in better shape than my left, and I leaned on it like a crutch. When walking down the sidewalk, I made it a habit to keep people on my right side. I figured out how to get by, but I was constantly thinking about my hearing loss, as I tried to piece together conversations from muffled voices.

My Quest for Normalcy

And then I realized I had limited time. My hearing was getting worse, and one day, it was going to go away completely. So starting in college, I visited every ear doctor I could find to see if there might be a fix. Pretty much everyone said that my left ear, for one, was in such fragile shape, they were afraid that surgery might do more harm than good. My hearing got even worse, so they suggested hearing aids, which are bulky at best. Instead, I started watching TV with subtitles turned on and staying after class to copy other people's notes.

I'd all but given up when I found my way to the otolaryngology department at NYU Medical Center. There, suddenly and finally, the doctors had good news. (Pro tip: If you live in New York or move to New York, skip the doctor search and seek out NYU faculty. They're fantastic.) The first guy I talked to, Dr. Kenneth Schneider, told me that my ears could be rebuilt thanks to some newer techniques. I would need surgery. There would be scalpels. And there was still a chance it wouldn't work. However, without surgery, there was a chance that my hearing would continue to degrade. One day, I could be completely deaf.

My next visit was with the surgeon, an affable fellow named Dr. Sean McMenomey. In his midtown office, wearing a head mirror, Dr. McMenomey explained what was going on. My left ear was basically broken. The ear drum was full of holes, and had collapsed onto the middle ear, which itself was also a mess. The tiny bones in there were so completely out of whack that they basically didn't work. My right ear was in a similar, albeit less severe, condition. The diagnosis: maximal conductive hearing loss.

The problem, in a sense, was a mechanical one. Your eardum and ossicles (a.k.a. "those tiny bones") exist to conduct sound waves from outside the ear to the auditory nerve in your inner ear, the same way that a bridge carries cars from one side of the river to the other. Thanks to years of infection, that bridge had basically collapsed in my left ear. In my right ear, the damage was critical, but sound could still make it across.

There was some good news though; a hearing test revealed that everything beyond that point was in good shape. If they could rebuild the middle ear and repair the ear drum, there was a good chance my hearing could be restored. We'd start on the left side.

My Cyborg Ear: How a Surgeon and Titanium Cured My Lifelong Deafness

"I might have to cut your ear off," Dr. McMenomey said matter-of-factly.

My eyes widened.

"Not all the way off!" he smiled in the most reassuring way possible, considering the news. "Depending on how it looks when I get in the operating room, I'll either go in through the ear canal or make an incision back here," he pointed the area directly behind the ear, "And peel it back."

My eyes remained wide.

"Don't worry it'll be a small incision. People probably won't even be able to see the scar."

"That's reassuring," I was lying but only a little bit.

"Once I'm in there, I'll have a better idea of how bad the damage is. If it's really bad, I'll have to do the surgery in two stages. If not, I think we can have you in and out of the OR in an hour." He turned to the cross section diagram of an ear on the wall, "First, I'll put those bones back in place. I'll most likely install a titanium prosthesis in your head."

"So I'll be a cyborg?"

"Technically, yes," he laughed. "But it's small and non-ferrous, so you won't get pulled aside at the airport or anything like that. In fact, you won't even notice it's there."

I nodded.

"Then, I'll rebuild the ear drum," Dr. McMenomey said. "I'll probably need to borrow a little cartilage from outside your ear to patch it up, but you won't really notice that either."

It all sounded too good to be true. But I was lucky. While my hearing loss was severe, it was operable. And the procedure was a far less invasive than, say, installing a cochlear implant. My hearing would also, hopefully, return to some semblance of normalcy, whereas a cochlear implant is different.

"Sound like something you'd be into?" he asked casually. I booked an appointment as soon I could.

My Day Under the Knife

Within a month of my consultation with Dr. McMenomey, I found myself in a hospital gown with an IV in my hand—my sweaty, nervous hand. It took nearly two hours to cycle through all the various players that would be involved in my relatively short surgery. The nurse that checked my vitals asked my why I was there. I assumed she knew.

"A lot of people are going to be asking you that," she explained. "It's a liability thing."

My Cyborg Ear: How a Surgeon and Titanium Cured My Lifelong Deafness

I had not considered the idea that the doctors would perform the wrong surgery. So I told her I was getting surgery on my ear. She asked me which one. Again, I assumed she knew. I pointed to my left ear.

The anesthesiologist came by, and we had the same conversation. He also explained how I would barely even notice the surgery. I'd fall asleep pretty much as soon as the oxygen mask hit my face, and I'd wake up in recovery.

Finally, Dr. McMenomey showed up in scrubs. We had the same conversation. (I knew he knew, but you know...) He pulled out a sterile Sharpie and put his initials on the left side of my head with a line pointing to my ear. Good God, I thought to myself, how many people had to have surgery on the wrong side before this Sharpie thing became a thing.

Before I felt ready, they wheeled me up to the OR. I hopped onto the table. It was uncomfortable. The nurses started strapping something to my legs and then something to my arm. The anesthesiologist tried to make small talk but before I could quip back I saw the oxygen mask heading towards my face. Moments later, I woke up on a gurney with a pounding headache and a bandage over my left ear. I couldn't hear anything.

My Cyborg Ear: How a Surgeon and Titanium Cured My Lifelong Deafness

My Revelation

Dr. McMenomey had said it would take a couple weeks to heal. During that time, I had to keep the ear covered. Seeing the bandage in the mirror was like looking at freshly wrapped Christmas presents under the tree but struggling with the fact you'd have to wait a few more days to open them.

The day I took the bandage out was a normal day. I'd spent my working hours listening to music and blogging and stuff. When quitting time came, I went to the bathroom, and unceremoniously pulled out the packing. I don't know what I expected, but it didn't seem any different without the bandage. I tried snapping my fingers on the left side of my head. Did it sound louder?

I left the office with my coworker Bob. Bob's from Scranton and enjoys chatting, so we chatted while we strolled to the subway. I slowed to a walk, when I felt anxiety creep up my spine. My hands were shaking a little, and Bob asked me if I was alright.

"Yeah, I..." I couldn't figure it out at first, but then it hit me like a locomotive. "Holy shit, I can hear you!"

Bob looked confused.

"I felt like something was wrong," I explained. "Then I realized that you were standing on my left side, and I could actually hear what you were saying! That's never happened to me before."

"Wait, so you're telling me all this time we've been working together you haven't been able to hear me?" Bob looked upset.

"No no no," I was getting flashbacks to the "brusque" conversation I'd had with my boss a few years before. "I mean yes, I couldn't really hear you, but I'd know what you were saying. Now I can actually hear you, and it's tripping me out."

Suddenly, the cacophony of the city swirled around me. A car door slammed down the alleyway. A couple chatted on the corner. The subway rumbled underneath. These were all sounds I'd heard before, but not like this. It was as if I suddenly had superpowers. It was incredible.

My Recovery

In the weeks that followed the hearing got better and better. When I went for my first post-op appointment, Dr. McMenomey told me the inside of the left ear looked "awesome," and that was a new experience, too. Usually when doctors looked at that ear, they'd gasp. I'd have to explain that I knew it was screwed up, but there was nothing to be done. When he looked at the right, he said he'd like to give it the same treatment whenever I was ready. But for now, I should expect to start hearing a lot more.

I guess I'd finally done it. Or rather, the surgical team did it. About a month after the surgery, the ear was healed well enough to swim. It had been a decade since I'd gone underwater, and I could do that again. (I still haven't, because I'm scared.) I could hear people when they talked to me. (Again, this was a novelty.) And most importantly, I could sleep easy knowing that I wasn't going to go completely deaf in that ear.

A few weeks later, I flew down to Tennessee to surprise my mom for her birthday. We ate some pizza and had a grand old time. Later that night, I was watching a movie, while my sister took care of some things around the house. She eventually sat down and tried to follow the movie.

"Why do you have the sound on so low?" she asked.

"Huh?" I didn't understand.

"Can you turn it up, please?" she asked more directly.

"Oh..." I pumped the volume up.

"Wait," my mom said from across the room. "Can you actually hear that, Adam?" I would usually wake up the neighbors when I watched TV.

"I guess I can," I said, kind of surprised.

"Wow," my mom said.

It was around then that I took stock of the past few months. The most incredible thing about the surgery was the simple fact that I didn't have to think about hearing any more. Before, the struggle to make sense of what people were saying ruled every interaction I had, leaning in so that I might catch a sentence with my good ear or watching their lips to try and make out works. Now, I could simply hear them.

When I went back for my follow up hearing test recently, I didn't know what to expect. I'd had a million tests like it. I basically failed them all. But this time was different. The audiologist laughed when she showed me the results. In my last hearing test, about a month before the surgery, I could hear about 38 percent of what was going on in my left ear. Now, I can hear 93 percent. All thanks to a good surgeon, a lot of patience, and a tiny fleck of titanium.

Image by Tara Jacoby