A nurse took my vitals and pressed on my stomach. There was a deep pain, followed by a terrifying discovery: I couldn’t hear anything. Not the nurse, who was asking me questions, not my husband, not the beeping medical monitors. Nothing.
The anesthesiologist quickly reviewed my condition and said don’t worry, my hearing would return to normal once the head congestion, common in pregnancy, dissipated. But it never did.
Doctors aren’t sure why people can lose hearing during pregnancy or childbirth. Hormonal changes or high blood pressure can cause hearing issues, such as clogged ears or a background buzzing. But actual hearing loss in pregnancy is rare and losing hearing during childbirth, as I had, is so unusual that Frank Lin, otolaryngology professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of its Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health, said he has never encountered it before.
My head congestion dissipated by the next day, but everything still sounded muted and definitely not back to normal. And as the months ticked by, things didn’t get better. There was a loud humming in my ears; I couldn’t hear my children clearly if we were all riding in the same car and they were seated in the back seat; I couldn’t hear a cashier in a grocery store telling me that their checkout line was open; I couldn’t hear a colleague call my name when approaching my desk at work; and I was constantly asking folks to repeat themselves during face-to-face conversations.
Finally, about nine months after giving birth, it was too much. “Babe, it’s time to take your hearing loss seriously and go to the doctor,” my husband, Bernard, said.
The audiologist immediately diagnosed me with severe hearing loss in both ears. I had lost more than a quarter of the hearing in my left ear and almost 40 percent in my right. And I have particular problems distinguishing lower tones. That may seem tolerable, but it is the difference between enjoying conversation and music and hearing muddled sounds.
With a sense of grief, shock and profound sadness, I officially joined the more than 38 million Americans over age 12 with hearing loss in both ears.
More than a third of pregnant women develop tinnitus, or a ringing in their ears, according to the British Tinnitus Association. The problem can be caused by stress, upper back pain, high blood pressure, headaches and other ailments common among pregnant women. But for most people, the tinnitus will vanish once their child is born.
What to do about tinnitus, the chronic ringing in your ears
While my muffled hearing was instantaneous, I first noticed my tinnitus six months after my new daughter, Quinn, was born, but I realize now it actually started before then. It became more pronounced at the end of the day, after my girls had gone to bed, and I was settling in for the night. I’d hear a low constant hum, like the sound of a broken air conditioner, that seemed to grow louder as our home grew quieter. If I was watching TV, I’d have to really turn up the volume.
As I searched for an answer to what had happened, my doctors thought I might be experiencing another disorder, otosclerosis, or abnormal bone growth in the middle ear, which can occur in pregnancy, probably because of hormonal changes. It causes mild to severe hearing loss but is curable with surgery or is helped by hearing aids.
“We don’t fully know if pregnancy causes otosclerosis, but there does appear to be a link with onset, or it getting worse during pregnancy,” said Franki Oliver, a researcher at London’s Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID). It appears more likely to afflict women in their 20s and 30s, she said, “and it does appear to run in families, but … we think there may be some environmental factors as well.”
Still, my hearing loss did not occur during pregnancy, and after a battery of tests, doctors scratched otosclerosis from the list of possible causes.
Instead, they began to focus on another culprit, sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL), sometimes referred to as “sudden deafness,” which is nerve damage in the inner ear. While my doctors said they had not encountered a case of SNHL being caused by childbirth, it is not unheard-of that SNHL occurs during pregnancy. It is also permanent, they said.
After still more audiology exams, CT scans and genetic tests, doctors finally diagnosed a different problem that they now believe caused my hearing loss: I have an abnormally shaped cochlea — the part of the inner ear that changes sounds into nerve signals to the brain. That still does not solve the mystery of why childbirth triggered my hearing loss, but I will soon undergo additional genetic testing to help understand the origin of my misshaped cochlea, which may help our three daughters if they inherit the same problem.
A year after my daughter was born, I began wearing hearing aids. It was both sobering and delightful to hear everyone and everything again. My ear-ringing tinnitus stops when I wear my hearing aids, although it returns when I take them out for bed — but not so much to keep me awake. With the help of hearing aids, I was blessed that I was able to clearly hear my daughter’s first words — and her infectious laugh.
The pandemic has been particularly challenging for people like me who have hearing issues, because masks that other people wear muffle their voices and obstruct their facial expressions and lip movement — key hints that help me and others interpret what they are saying.
Trying to figure out my hearing problems has been eye-opening and often has left me feeling vulnerable — from wearing my hearing aids for the first time, to the anxiety that builds from attending in-person events and wondering whether I’ll be able to hear everyone clearly and participate in conversations, to concerns over how I will be perceived, to even sharing this story.
Fortunately the conventional belief of what hearing loss looks like is constantly changing, mostly for the better.
Because of rapidly advancing technology, hearing aids are becoming smaller, more powerful and more adaptable. I think most people I talk to do not even realize I’m wearing hearing aids in both ears, which can be adjusted to specifically amplify high and low pitches, depending on my environment. The devices have different settings for restaurants, concerts, meetings and phone calls. They can sync with mobile devices and other electronics, and they can be controlled with an app.
But there is a catch to this technological improvement: Prices for a pair of aids can run as high as $6,000, and typically are not covered by insurance.
I am lucky that my insurance covers a significant part of that cost. But for many older people on Medicare, which does not cover them, the cost can be especially onerous. Partly as a result, only about 28.5 percent of the people in the United States who need hearing aids have them. There is good news, however: Congress authorized over-the-counter hearing aids in 2017, and last fall the Food and Drug Administration started the process to create a new category of government-approved hearing aids that Americans will be able to buy without a prescription.
Hearing aids without a prescription or an exam? The FDA takes big step toward making that happen.
I’m now 43. Absent a medical breakthrough, hearing aids are a permanent part of my life. Without them — when I forget them at home, or I need to recharge the batteries quickly before an event — the ringing, the muddled sounds and anxiety return.
With them, I can go into meetings with greater assurance. I enjoy music and the theater. I can hear the birds singing in my backyard. And I can more clearly hear my three girls, although I sometimes have to ask them to repeat things and enunciate more clearly.
Edda Collins Coleman lives in Orinda, Calif., and is a managing director at Cogent Strategies, a government relations and public affairs firm in D.C.