Southern Health

Before March 2006, I took for granted dinner table conversation with family and friends, music, dogs barking, birds chirping, even impatient car horns and urgent sirens.  Then one morning my wife could not wake me, and she called 911.  The ambulance raced to the nearest Emergency Room, DeKalb Medical Center on North Decatur Road.  I lay in a coma for three weeks with meningitis, raging fevers, tubes, respirators, massive doses of antibiotics. After that, in the Emory East Rehab Center on U.S. Highway 78 in Snellville, I read an article that said, “So you’ve had meningitis, and now you are deaf.  Boy, are you lucky!”

In the bed at the rehab center, among the many things I could not do was operate the remote control to keep the television optioned for closed captions.  So I began watching only baseball games.  From the time I was 10 years old, my Daddy took me to Atlanta Cracker baseball games at Ponce de Leon Ballpark across from Sears.  I do not need to hear anything some television sportscaster might say to know who’s on first.

My wife brought me a white board the size of a notebook, dry markers, and a fiber eraser, so we could communicate through my deafness.   I came home from the rehab center in a wheel chair, barely able to stumble from the bed to the bathroom, the most important milestone I had reached.  We scheduled an appointment at Northside Hospital on Johnson Ferry Rd with a top Atlanta area hearing specialist, an otolaryngologist.  Tests yielded an official diagnosis of what I already experienced daily: profound deafness, permanent 100 percent loss of hearing and balance function in both ears.  A cochlear implant would be the only alternative to total silence for the rest of my life. Sometimes called a “bionic ear,” the cochlear implant is actually an ear bypass, computerized mini-electronics transmitting sounds directly to the brain without traveling through the ear.

My insurance company, one of the biggest, a ubiquitous advertiser, and health benefits provider to major corporations like my employer, denied coverage for my cochlear implant, costs starting at $50,000 on top of my medical expenses already incurred while I was at death’s door.  My wife searched the internet and found the Let Them Hear Foundation, Palo Alto, California, pro bono lawyers with an impressive track record against insurance company denials of coverage for hearing treatment.  Let Them Hear cited their court victories and reminded my big, ubiquitous insurance provider of “consequential liability.”  What if I got run over by a train I could not hear, as had happened to Miss Deaf Texas? My insurance company still denied the claim.   Months went by.  The appeal was referred to the head of the corporate legal department of my employer, who responded at the eleventh hour to Let Them Hear, cc to me, “Your case law is weak, and your legal reasoning is flawed.  However, we have decided to change our policy and provide coverage.”  I was completely deaf for more than six months before my cochlear implant.

Now that I have come to need doctors, my confidence in so many of them would be improved if they did not look like friends of my children.  Fortunately, my cochlear implant surgeon was my age, maybe even a few years older.  He had the social manner of a poker player with paper money on the table in denominations carrying portraits of people who were never U.S. President.  At the same time he conveyed an intense awareness that the Constitutional right to bear arms applied to every citizen who played poker.  This struck me as the perfect attitude in someone who would cut holes in my head and wire things up to my brain.

I checked in Northside Hospital at 5:30 in the morning for my surgery.  A nurse shaved off a patch of hair behind my left ear.  An anesthesiologist told me to count to 1,000.  I do not remember getting past 10.  I woke up in time for lunch and was sent home that afternoon with a pill bottle full of painkillers.  I did not have to take so much as an aspirin. I have endured dental procedures that were worse.

Two weeks later, I received the external device to wear behind my ear, miniaturized microphone, controller, and computer.  I heard sounds immediately, paper rattling, a pencil dropping to the floor, conversation.  After months of total silence, the noise came as an assault.  Everybody sounded like Alvin and the Chipmunks announcing the stops on the subway at the Atlanta Airport.   I would get used to it.  A cochlear implant isn’t perfect, only a miracle.

For the first four years, annual checkups and reprogramming (mapping) of my cochlear implant yielded little change from the first sounds I heard.  My satisfaction level stalled at about a two on a scale of 10–which is not to say I would rather be 100 percent deaf.  All complaints presume this caveat.  Then in 2010, a breakthrough of some kind, still unexplained, perhaps unexplainable.  My satisfaction level jumped to a five on a scale of 10.   Since then, I have experienced small isolated improvements in what I hear, no change in the hardware or computer settings, only what my brain tells me things sound like.

Meanwhile, I also had to learn to walk again. The damage to my inner ears also left me with a 100 percent loss of balance function, no gyroscopic axis.  After two years of extensive physical therapy and rehabilitation, I was able to walk, carefully as someone leaving a bar at closing time. But I walk.  Eventually, I was able go to the Wellness Center, in front of DeKalb Medical, at least three days a week. The Wellness Center includes workout machines, weights, a swimming pool, and an indoor track, 15 times around for a mile. The first time I visited the Wellness Center I could not walk around the track once.  Little by little, I built to a routine of walking five laps, then stretch exercises for my arms, legs, and lower back.  For balance exercises, I do some lateral crossovers, followed by walking a straight line heel-to-toe, like a field sobriety test. Then I jog three to four laps.   After the jog, I keep walking laps until I catch my breath. Then I put in ten minutes on a combination of the bicycle and stair-step workout machines.  I finish by walking however many laps I need to complete a mile for the day.

Then I go home and take a nap.

I used to tell people I could not do a pirouette–on purpose. Now, one of my proudest accomplishments is that I am able to put on my trousers, one leg at a time, just like anybody else, while standing.  Accompanying me around the track at the Wellness Center every time are survivors of health crises from orthopedics to cardiology, cancer to stroke, keeping on keeping on.  The Wellness Center is the only place I know where the majority of its parking spaces are painted blue.  A large banner displayed along the indoor track reads, “TRIUMPH OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT.”

Illustration via YouTube.
William Cotter

William Cotter

I actually remember when THE ATLANTA JOURNAL claimed it "Covers Dixie Like the Dew," because 50 years ago, when I graduated from high school, I landed my first full-time job there as a copy boy. Thanks to city editor Harold E. Davis, I was promoted to city desk clerk, then later became the youngest of his young reporters, when they were still located at 10 Forsyth St., next to the train station (have I preceded your memory yet?). Before I left journalism in the 1970's to try and earn a living, I also had worked for THE DAILY JOURNAL of Elizabeth, N.J., had been a stringer for NEWSWEEK, and had written articles for Atlanta weeklies CREATIVE LOAFING and THE ATLANTA GAZETTE. In 2006, I was hospitalized with meningitis, three weeks in a coma, waking up with 100 percent hearing loss in both ears. I received a cochlear implant, which provides me a miraculous electronic approximation of hearing, although everybody sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks announcing the subway stops at the Atlanta Airport. After I was discharged from the hospital, I began to write a blog to see if anything about my brain still worked and if I could still type. In addition to my own blog COTTER PEN, I have been a contributor to the arts blog SOUTHERN CREATIVITY and helped design and launch other blogs about writers and artists.