Now Hear This!
Life's everyday clatter is a symphony to Ecklund, 29, who for four years has played deaf hospital administrator Abigail Bauer on the CBS soap Guiding Light. Hearing-impaired since age 6 (doctors never determined the cause), Ecklund no longer has to read lips to do scenes.
Last January she had a Nucleus 24 cochlear implant put in her right ear, thus becoming one of the 2,000 people in the U.S. to have benefited from the revolutionary hearing device.
The two-part implant—an internal receiver and an electrode that stimulates hair cells in the cochlea (the canal in the inner ear where the auditory nerves originate), paired with an external sound processor hidden behind the ear—has allowed Ecklund to hear nearly normally, dramatically changing her life. "It's like watching a child being born," says Michael O'Leary, who plays her husband, Dr. Rick Bauer, on Guiding Light—on which Ecklund's character also received a cochlear implant in May. But trying to understand thousands of sounds—a dishwasher, her dogs flapping their ears—has been disorienting for the Nevada-born daughter of an attorney father and artist mother. Married to Jon Ecklund, 29, a Yale School of Drama graduate, and living in New Haven, Ecklund met with correspondent Cynthia Wang to explain what it's like to hear again after so many years.
I started losing my hearing when I was 3 or 4, and every year it got harder to hear voices or talk on the phone. But between my hearing aid and reading lips I was able to get along socially and at work. Last year, though, things got so bad that at the grocery store, people would poke me in the back and say, "Would you get out of the way. I've been asking you to move for five minutes!"
Every once in a while I would ask my audiologist, Amy Popp, about hearing-enabling devices, but for years I just wasn't ready to get one. Then, last November, Amy showed me the Nucleus 24 implant, which you can't even tell someone has on. That kind of did it for me. I decided to just jump off and do it.
I know there is a controversy about the implant. Many people in the deaf community believe that being deaf is not a defect, and that's a valid viewpoint. But because of the career and the life that I choose, I am really in the thick of the hearing community. I'm an adult, and I made the choice that's right for me, and all of my deaf friends are very supportive of my decision.
The operation happened on Jan. 13, and it lasted an hour and 40 minutes. I had to wait about a month for my head to heal, and there was more pain than I thought there would be. When they first turned on the implant in February, things all sounded the same, like a high, Mickey Mousey sound. The first thing I heard was my audiologist's voice, and I made her stop talking and start whispering. Even fingernails tapping on a table were too loud. For two days after that my husband and I had to whisper because everything was so loud.
My audiologist adjusted the implant and then made me go walk around the street for five minutes, and that was really weird. I was aware of people staring at me because I was walking like a zombie. I think I might have even been drooling. Then I had to start learning and identifying all these new sounds, and that was tiring. I knew what some noises were because I could see what was happening. But on the first day, I heard a noise in the kitchen that sounded like a slide whistle, and I asked Jon, "What's that?" He said, "That's the dog drinking out of the bowl." And I thought about it and all of a sudden the sound changed, like from Chinese characters to English, and I heard the dog drinking.
The thing that I was really excited about was using the telephone, and for my first call I dialed my mom. But she wasn't home, and I got my brother Nick, who's 18. I said, "Hi, it's Amy," and he said, "Oh, hi." He didn't realize I could hear him. So I said, "Nick, do you realize this is my first phone conversation in 18 years?" And he goes, "Oh, my God, you can hear me?" And we both just started crying.
After that, I think I called everybody—even my ex-boyfriend from college! I'm learning phone etiquette, about not cutting in and who talks first. I tried listening to music in the first week, and it wasn't so good. But by the third week I was on the floor sobbing—going, "It's the Doobie Brothers!" I also went to see Saving Private Ryan, and I was in shock. I could tell the difference between the machine guns and the rifles, which was great. I giggled through the whole movie, which I know was inappropriate.
Everything changed. I used to flood the kitchen a lot because I'd turn on the water and go do something else. Not anymore. My two miniature pinschers, Eloise and Marcella, were always aware I couldn't hear. Someone would be at the door, and they would come and get me. Now they notice I tell them to be quiet a lot more. Even hearing myself pee was a real revelation. Now I can tell when I'm finished!
On Guiding Light, I used to memorize every actor's lines to do a scene. Now I can just take in what they're saying. I can close my eyes and still talk to the makeup artist, for the first time! Michael O'Leary, my costar, has been belching in front of me a lot. He does this impression of William Shatner and belches, which really cracks me up.
But there was a downside to this: I would get depressed—I'm not sure why. I had to deal with other people's happy emotions, with them wanting to know how I feel. But lots of times, I don't know how I feel. It's an enormous experience, and it's not all clear to me. I don't think I would have been able to go through this without Jon's support.
Still, I wouldn't change this experience for anything. I connect with people better now because I'm so much more able to be myself rather than putting up a shield to hide my fears. My whole place in the world has changed, just from understanding more of what is going on. Before, I didn't even realize some of the things I was missing, but that's okay. Every day is different now. Every day is a miracle.
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