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What it’s like ... to hear with a bionic ear

“I had no idea that soft plastic bags made a loud rustling noise, that carrots squealed when you sliced them, that dry leaves made whishing sounds as you stepped through them, that the wind makes a lovely sighing sound in the trees.”

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This is part of a series that looks at extraordinary experiences in personal health. Share yours at health@globeandmail.com.

I have a bionic ear: the first successful artificial sense organ ever developed.

When I was born, I was genetically programmed to go deaf, just as my father and his mother before him had. The hair cells in my inner ear, or cochlea, gradually stopped waving in response to sound. They became unresponsive, atrophied, mute. And I became progressively more deaf.

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By the age of 12, I was completely unable to understand speech without lip reading, needing my mother (yes!) to act as an intermediary for dates on the phone. It was terrible timing.

But all that changed when I got a cochlear implant as an adult. The tiny implant in my inner ear has 24 electrodes or points of electrical stimulation to artificially replace the 20,000 hair cells in your ear if you have normal hearing. My implant is connected to a hearing aid-like digital processor I wear behind my ear that rapidly converts acoustic sound to electrical signals. These signals pass to the electrodes in my inner ear and then along my auditory nerve to be interpreted as sound by my brain.

Electrical stimulation of the cochlea to treat deafness was at first derided and treated as quackery. Alessandro Volta in the late 18th-century famously experimented on his own ears by connecting two rods to live electric circuits and sticking one in each ear. He reported feeling something like a hard blow to his head and liquid boiling. Understandably, he did not repeat the experiment.

Later, in the 1960s, as the technology was developing in California and Australia, the papers of cochlear-implant researchers were routinely rejected at medical conferences.

But the technology has progressed. Cochlear implantation has become a safe, recognized surgical approach to deafness since 1985 for adults, and since 1990 for children, in spite of lingering skepticism by a few in the medical profession, and hostility by some in the deaf culture.

When I was first implanted at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, and the current was turned on, what I heard was buzzes and beeps, and voices sounding like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Strange sounds surrounded me. I had no idea that soft plastic bags made a loud rustling noise, that carrots squealed when you sliced them, that dry leaves made whishing sounds as you stepped through them, that the wind makes a lovely sighing sound in the trees.

So I began my language-immersion course, connecting the strange sounds I heard with their sources, and squirrelling the connections away in my brain. Thankfully, the brain is plastic, and the buzzes and beeps and Mickey Mouse voices gradually started to sound normal; some music even sounded pleasant.

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I learned to hear not only by identifying sounds but also by listening to children's talking books. My favourite was Make Way for Ducklings, which I listened to over and over again. "Mr. and Mrs. Mallard were looking for a place to live …" At first, the sounds I heard and the text I saw on the page had absolutely no relationship. But slowly, over time, I started to make connections, and began to understand speech even without lip reading. By that time, it was too late for dates over the phone, but never mind. I was happy.

When I threw a stone into a pond, instead of falling soundlessly, it made a satisfying "plunk." I felt connected to the world around me as I had never felt before. The stress of lip reading with almost no sound information, of constantly being on the alert for vehicles that might run over me, for people calling me behind my back, abated. I felt mellow, relaxed, less tired at the end of the day. The worry crease between my eyebrows hasn't yet disappeared, but my face looks noticeably less strained.

I'm still deaf, however. When somebody speaks too quickly on the phone or has a heavy accent, I stumble. When I sleep, I take off my external devices, and hear nothing. I'm completely deaf in the shower and when swimming. But in this very wired age, I'm grateful to be wired for sound.

Beverly Biderman lives in Toronto. She is the author of Wired for Sound: A Journey into Hearing now out in a second revised edition.  The premiere of an opera based on her book, titled TMIE, on the Threshold of the Outside World, will take place in Lisbon, Portugal, on Sept. 8, 2016.

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