The literature is full of moving, inspirational accounts of doctors’ experience
as patients living through and sometimes dying from life-threatening illnesses.
What about doctors who experience somewhat less serious conditions? I am an
Unfortunately, I recently lost some
hearing in my right ear.
Kind of funny, no? I spend most of my time
trying to help people regain hearing, whether by removing earwax in the clinic
or by performing cochlear implant surgery to give hearing to a deaf child. I
realize that my hearing loss is unilateral and mild. I realize that most of my
patients have it much worse than me. My colleagues have reminded me of that as
well. Surprisingly, none of that is particularly comforting.
ago, I traveled to Jerusalem for a rehearsal in a TV pilot I was recently cast
for the lead role in. Acting has always been my passion, but I haven’t given up
medicine, yet. After making a quick stop at the famous Mahane Yehuda market and
picking up some super-gooey and delicious rugalach, I started my trip back home
to Ra’anana. While descending from Jerusalem toward the coastal plain, my right
ear plugged and I was unable to pop it open. I was getting over a pretty bad
cold at the time which is why my Eustachian tube didn’t function properly, and I
couldn’t equalize the pressure in my ear. Okay, it happens. It usually takes a
few minutes, a couple of swallows and maybe a good nose blow and everything goes
back to normal.
Except this time it didn’t work.
Over the next few
hours my ear became progressively plugged and I developed severe pain. Over the
weekend, the pain gradually resolved but my hearing didn’t return. I wasn’t too
concerned because I’ve seen this hundreds of times. I dutifully followed the
recommendations I have given every patient in the same situation. I started
taking nasal steroids, antihistamines and decongestants. The negative pressure
in my ear caused fluid to accumulate, interfering with the natural motion of the
tympanic membrane and the three tiny ossicles or bones of the middle
There are two types of hearing loss. Conductive hearing loss, which
can be caused by common problems like earwax or fluid in the middle ear, is not
a big deal. A little bit of cleaning or very minor surgery (tubes or grommets)
generally cures it. Often no treatment is needed at all and the problem resolves
The other type of hearing loss, sensorineural hearing
loss, is the bad kind. That is the type of hearing loss that comes with age,
after excessive noise exposure, or when you take drugs that kill the cells in
your cochlea. It is usually irreversible.
I knew that I had a conductive
hearing loss. No biggie. Within a few days, at most a couple of weeks, the
congestion resolves, the fluid drains, and my ear goes back to normal. I found
it annoying having only one good ear but I really couldn’t complain. That same
day, while I was at rehearsal, my brother-in-law sustained an injury during a
basketball game and was rushed to the hospital where he underwent emergency
surgery to try to save his eye. I wasn’t going to get too worked up about my
temporary, minor problem.
The problem was, it didn’t seem to be getting
better. If anything, my hearing was getting worse. On the second day I developed
deafening ringing in my right ear, known as tinnitus. By the time I got back to
work after the weekend I was beginning to get nervous. I had my ear checked by
(Actually, I checked it myself as well by attaching an
endoscope to a screen and snaking it into my own ear. I won’t be doing that
again for awhile!) My eardrum was significantly inflamed and my middle ear,
normally an air-filled cavity, was halfway filled with blood.
might come as a surprise to some, that was actually reassuring because it was
consistent with conductive hearing loss.
By the next day, things weren’t
improving, so I finally arranged for a formal hearing test. I couldn’t believe
the results! I was in shock. I had actually sustained some sensorineural hearing
loss in my right ear.
That’s when everything changed.
that my ear might never get better. I had already been through denial, and now I
started going through the other stages of Kubler-Ross grieving. I was angry that
I had driven to Jerusalem for that ill-fated rehearsal. Bargaining came in the
form of megadoses of steroids to somehow try to stem the damage to my cochlea or
auditory nerve, and possibly even reverse it.
By no means was I
clinically depressed but I often felt sad about what I might miss should my
hearing fail to return; The sound of my children laughing, the baby crying,
localizing noise, understanding speech in a crowded room to name a few. Dammit,
I know too much about hearing loss! Since then I have been inching closer to
Through all this, however, the most eye-opening experience
was hearing the remarks of my colleagues, including audiologists, nurses and
physicians. They all made well-intentioned comments of a type I myself have made
countless times to patients in similar situations: “Oh, that’s not so bad!” “You
probably had it before and didn’t notice.”
No, I’m pretty sure I only
stopped hearing the same day my ear popped! “I don’t believe the hearing
Except for the fact that I have screaming tinnitus.
are you upset? It’s so minor you are not even going to notice
Newsflash: it’s driving me CRAZY! “It’s so mild it doesn’t even
fulfill the criteria for treatment.”
I refer you to my earlier comment on
bargaining and megadose steroids.
It’s a little bit ironic. I pride
myself on communication skills and empathy. I’m a graduate of McMaster
University Medical School, probably the world leader at training doctors in
communicating with patients. My father is a psychiatrist and my mother is a
social worker. I was pretty much born communicating. And here I am, on the other
end of the otoscope, being schooled on what it means to have a “minor”
One of the doctors was able to make me feel bit better by
pointing out that I hadn’t even suffered this barotrauma due to one of the sexy
causes, such as sky diving or scuba diving. I got it driving down a hill with a
stuffy nose. Sometimes laughter is the best medicine.
A few days later,
when I was feeling the full effects of the steroids in my mood swings, extreme
fatigue, disturbed sleep patterns and ravenous appetite, I was bemoaning my
condition over lunch to a friend of mine who is a pediatric lung specialist at
Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petah Tikva. He asked me very specific
questions, demonstrating a rare and keen knowledge of hearing loss. He then
proceeded to tell me about his own severe unilateral conductive hearing
He has no idea what caused it, despite various attempts at
diagnostic surgery and imaging. Hearing that his situation was much worse than
mine didn’t make me feel any better. But instead of just rattling off how he
really only needs one ear, how a hearing aid might be helpful and how we can try
new diagnostic modalities, I was able to really feel his frustration and
despair. I still plan on doing everything I can to help, but I think a little
bit of empathy probably helps as well.
If nothing else, I will always try
to remember that no matter how minor I think the patient’s condition is, to the
person who is suffering it is frightening, depressing and very, very
Since then I’ve been monitoring my hearing by asking my kids to
whisper things in my right ear.
They almost always whisper “I love you,
(I have gotten “Can I play with your iPhone, Daddy” a few times
as well.) My most recent audiogram shows my hearing has started to improve. The
tinnitus is also almost gone. Turns out my prognosis may not be so bad in the
end! Thankfully, my brother-in-law’s surgery was a success and his vision has
been steadily improving.
We are taking it one day at a time.
TV pilot was a flop. I guess I’ll have to keep my day job.
Hollywood star is temporarily on hold.
The author, formerly from Toronto,
Canada, is a pediatric ear nose and throat surgeon practicing at Scheinder
Children’s Hospital in Petah Tikva.
He lives with his wife and four boys