The first sounds are sharp, almost abrasive, higher pitched than any sounds she’s been able to hear in years. Listening to the audiologist speak, and then her boyfriend, she cringes at the pitch before remarking that they sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Thus are Rebekah Edelman’s first minutes of ‘hearing’ again.
After close to a decade of hearing loss before being declared legally deaf, Edelman received a cochlear implant at Overlake Hospital on July 31. Despite having it turned on Aug. 28, her journey isn’t over. She, like most cochlear implant recipients, will spend weeks, if not months, adjusting to sound and re-learning to hear and comprehend speech.
Her hearing, or lack thereof, has played a significant role in Edelman’s life. As she matured and her hearing loss increased — first slowly, then rapidly — Edelman, 24, found herself staying quiet in social situations because she often couldn’t understand what was being said or keep pace with the conversation while trying to read lips.
Everyday interactions with her boyfriend, her family and customers at her job as an assistant manager at a Dollar Tree were difficult, she said.
“In the real world, a lot of patients fake it — They’ll nod or say yes, or they just won’t engage in the conversation. There will be situations they will avoid, social situations, a lot of times. You can only compensate so much before it affects your life,” said Dr. Trac Duong, Edelman’s surgeon.
Even though she grew up with full hearing for most of her life, the inability to hear herself has led to a slight deterioration of her speech. “It all just happened so fast, but I could tell her speech was changing a little bit, too,” her mother, Kari Edelman, said.
While she was attending college at Central Washington University, Edelman enrolled in an American Sign Language (ASL) course on a whim. What she discovered, she said, was a supportive community to which she felt strong ties.
“The deaf community is so welcoming; they were like the family I never had,” she said.
Edelman’s feelings are not uncommon — deaf communities often not only create linguistic bonds, but a general camaraderie of people who have a hard time fitting in with groups of ‘normal’ people.
But, a year after graduating with a Bachelor of Science in public health and after a decade of being hearing impaired, she was afraid to apply for jobs and to go on interviews.
“I looked at my life, and the reality is that I live in a hearing world,” she said.
After talking to doctors and people in the deaf community who had received cochlear implants, like her ASL professor Jerry Loudenback, she decided to rejoin the world of the hearing and get a cochlear implant.
A cochlear implant is a small electronic device that uses a group of electrodes that collects impulses from an external transmitter and sends them to different regions of the auditory nerve, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. The thin electrode is inserted directly into the spiral-shaped inner ear, bypassing the damaged cells and stimulating the hearing nerve directly.
Roughly 2 inches behind her right ear lies the implant, the thinnest model yet, making it practically unnoticeable. Overlake Hospital is the first hospital in Washington to use the new implant, and is the only hospital on the Eastside and near many communities to offer any type of cochlear implant surgery.
A month after her surgery, Edelman and her boyfriend Shane Sirrine were back at Overlake Hospital. Edelman alternated between being nervous, excited and calm while Sound Hearing audiologists Alexandra de Groot and Shivani Patel performed tests to adjust the levels on the 22 electrodes in her implant.
After a half hour of testing, Patel turned on the implant, a camera snapped and Edelman jumped at the sound, the first she had heard without a hearing aid in a long, long time.
As cochlear implants have become more widely used in conjunction with viral videos online, the trope of a deaf person hearing for the first time after getting an implant has filled the Internet. In these videos, the person usually starts crying at being able to hear seemingly perfectly.
In reality, the process of getting a cochlear implant is much more of an adjustment.
During hearing loss, the higher pitches are often lost first and the ability to recognize sounds as speech can also be lost. “We’re stimulating parts of the nerve that haven’t had stimulation in a long time,” de Groot said. “It’s kind of like waking them up again.”
It can take weeks or months for adults to understand speech again, and even more time and training to be able to discern voices. Edelman adjusted quickly to recognizing speech again compared to older adults, but still has trouble hearing variations in voices and differences in volume, she said.
To assist with this transition, patients often undergo “aural rehabilitation” — exercises that involve listening to speech and sounds to reinforce the words they’re hearing. In the week since her activation, Edelman has been practicing by listening to her boyfriend read aloud while she follows along.
Although the audiologists warned her she may get overwhelmed and need to take breaks from her implant, Edelman wears it almost all of the time.
“It feels great to be part of conversations again. I’m not left in the dark anymore,” she said. “There’s just so much I didn’t realize I was missing.”