Deafness · What up with that?

Balance Testing Torture

As some of you know, I’ve been looking into whether or not I’m a good candidate for a cochlear implant. I went through the initial testing phases about a month ago, and was told that I am a good candidate. The next step in the process is to have a CT scan, MRI and balance tests performed. I did all of these Friday morning, November 19th. Here’s my experience of that morning.


CT Scan and MRI

I had my scans performed at the Imaging Center at Saint Luke’s hospital. This department was very nice and helpful throughout the entire process. I was treated respectfully and everyone voiced clearly so I was able to understand everything that was going on. The attending nurse answered all of my questions also, and assuaged all my fears of the MRI “metal myth.”

I have screws in my left knee from a knee surgery back in ’96. And a couple weeks ago I watched that episode of House — the one where the woman has metal in her leg but doesn’t tell the doctors. She gets rolled into the MRI room and her knee explodes. Ha. Yeah, so I was very vocal about the fact that I had metal in my knee. The nurse laughed at me and shook her head and kindly explained that it was a very exaggerated television show. Apparently, you CAN have metal inside your body as long as it’s old, and small. So, anything as new as 8 weeks, and they don’t perform the MRI. 14 years is long enough, I guess. I was also allowed to leave in my belly ring.

The CT scan was quick and painless. 15 minutes of scanning on my back; 15 minutes of scanning on my stomach. Over and out.

The MRI, a little bit more tricky…. They inserted an IV (yuck…I really hate needles) and ran fluids through my veins so the MRI could track those fluids. I couldn’t move for 45 minutes, though I was comfortably on my back the entire time. And the machine itself is much more tomb-like than the CT scan machine. It’s also much louder and scary-sounding. It clanks and chirps and grinds and clicks and gurgles. I could almost imagine I was in the stomach of some B-movie monster on the SyFy channel. But eventually it was over. They pulled the IV, gave me a disc with my scans, and sent me on my way.


Balance Testing

This portion of the testing was conducted at the Midwest Ear Institute, where my audiology and surgeon are based. The first part of the test was painless, though it didn’t really look it. I was hooked up to four electrodes and had foam pointers placed inside my ears.

Electrodes on my forehead, foam pointers inside ears
Electrodes on both sides of my neck
Electrode on my hand

Then, while laying on my back, they asked me to lift my head so I was straining my neck muscles. And hold it. That’s it. About 17 times, give or take, I raised up my head, held it, then lowered it back down when they asked me to. Yep, intriguing.


The Torture Part…

Then came the water test. This was a whole different animal altogether, and not at all fun. For this test, still lying down, I was outfitted with blackout goggles that covered half my face (sorry, no photos for this test). Since I couldn’t see, they had different areas of the face/arms they would tap when they wanted me to do something. A tap on the side of my head where the eyes were meant “open your eyes.” A tap under the chin — “speak.” A tap on the left arm — “break time.” A tap on the right — “done.”

Then, they tilted my  head to the left just slightly, and poured lukewarm water into my right ear. Note: “pour.” Not “drip,” or “trickle,” but POUR. They rushed water in and out the ear canal for a good 30 seconds. This was not a fun sensation. It’s easy to panic because it feels almost like you’re in too much water. Don’t forget that I couldn’t see anything either. So, complete darkness, and a waterlogged ear. It was hard not to freak out. After the 30 seconds, the water stops. I saw a circular light open and shine inside the goggles for me to focus on. Then I was tapped on the chin and began to speak. It didn’t matter what I said, I just had to make sense. Then, a short break and the entire process is repeated to the left ear.

This is all supposed to test the balance organs inside the head. By comparing the response on each side, they can determine how well each of the balance organs are working.The test is supposed to make you dizzy. The speaking lets them know just how dizzy you become. The dizzier you are, the harder it is to speak coherently.

After both ears were completed, no tap to the right arm came that signaled I was done. Instead, after a short break, they tilted my head as if to repeat the test. This time, instead of lukewarm water, they poured ice-cold water into my ears. THAT was TORTURE. Repeat to the left ear, and finally, still shivering, they took the goggles off and the test was over.

Once my eyes got used to the light again, they apologized for the cold water test. They explained that it’s only done when a patient shows no response to the first testing. Oh, I guess I forgot to say — I felt no dizziness at any point during the testing. I asked them what that meant. They said, most likely, my balance organs were not working at all.


The Surgeon Elaborates

Testing complete and ears dried, I met with my audiologist and surgeon (who’s name is Dr. Cullen by the way. *laugh* Twi-fans will like that!) We reviewed the MRI and talked about my balance organs.

The MRI was very cool. You get to see slices of your brain on the computer screen. Creepy, but way cool. The surgeon pointed out the inner ear areas — where the auditory nerves were, where the cochlear was, where the balance organs were. He showed me the damaged areas that are the cause of my hearing loss and explained a bunch of technical terms (I won’t bore you here). Basically, I do have damage inside the cochlear, but it can be implanted successfully. The balance organs, on both sides, are complete scar tissue. Apparently they were damaged when I was sick (two and a half years of age) and haven’t worked since. The doc says I’ve compensated for this by using my vision to keep myself balanced. No wonder I can’t text and walk a straight line at the same time…


The Decision

So, now I have all the information at hand that I need (with the exception of one more possible MRI scan — some new technology is out that can give us a more specialized scan of the inner ear). The consensus is thus: I will never implant the right ear that I use to hear with now. Unless, in the future, I should lose that hearing. I am willing to implant the left ear, but not in a hurry to do so. Plus, it’s expensive! So over the next couple years I will do the new MRI scan that they want to see, choose a provider (the surgeon is recommending Cochlear America and my top choice is Advanced Bionics), and scrounge up the money to pay for it. The result: bi-lateral hearing! And the left ear will be able to distinguish high-pitches that I can’t currently hear, as well as softer sounds. I’m pretty excited about that possibility.

And I think I’ve written enough for today. 🙂

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