LIFE AFTER DEAF: My Misadventures in Hearing Loss and Recovery by Noel Holston (Skyhorse, 240 pp., $24.99)
Imagine going to bed one night able to hear, then waking up deaf. Noel Holston, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter who once covered the media for Newsday, recounts that nightmare in "Life After Deaf," a poignant and often humorous account of this misfortune that befell him.
Following stints at major newspapers, Holston joined the staff of the Peabody Awards housed in the College of Journalism at the University of Georgia. He went to bed at his home in Athens, Georgia, on March 3, 2010 “able to hear all manner of everyday sounds.” When he awoke the next morning: silence. He walked around the house, then got back in bed: more silence. He woke up his wife, Marty, a singer who was “medically knowledgeable” having worked as a certified nurse’s attendant. His mumbling made her think he had suffered a stroke.
“I lay there,” Holston writes, “cuddled up to Marty trying to will myself unconscious. … The prospect of a silent or near-silent existence didn’t scare me to death…. I only felt a wave of sadness.” Holston had also started to perform as a singer; he had recently finished three tracks of his first album. “The last music I had heard on March 3 was Elvis and some of his pals goofing on an old Chuck Berry song, ‘Too Much Monkey Business.’ ”
It would be the last song Holston heard clearly before he set out on a yearslong odyssey that required him to navigate the medical world and the draconian health-insurance bureaucracy, all in an effort to restore his hearing. When he saw a specialist on March 15, any “window” of an instant reversal having “slammed shut,” he learned what happened. “The cilia — the microscopic hairs in my inner ear … had been knocked over and flattened.” Steroid treatment brought relief but no reversal. In April, a specialist in Atlanta prescribed Methotrexate, also to no avail. Doctors suggested he consider an implant, essentially a bionic ear.
Holston contemplated his future without surgery. History has produced a range of figures who were successful despite being hearing-impaired, among them Beethoven, Pete Townsend, Huey Lewis and Helen Keller. But he remembered singing with Marty. “Would I ever be so lucky again?” He decided to have the implant.
Shortly before Noel's scheduled surgery in September at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta, Marty found a lump in her breast, which required a lumpectomy. Her illness brought to light the high-pressure nature of their lives. “Part of why my illness came to light [belatedly] is because I didn’t have time to find the lump," Marty told Noel. "We’ve been super-focused on you. We need to focus on me. … I can’t tell you how angry I am.”
Amid the drama, both surgeries occurred. “My recovery, physically at least, was speedy,” Holston writes. “Marty’s lumpectomy took a harder toll.”
But when Activation Day arrived, a month after surgery, Holston was distressed. All he heard was white noise. Six months of speech therapy did not help. Once it was determined the implant was not successful, a doctor from Cochlear, the implant manufacturer, suggested replacing the implant with revision surgery.
Blue Cross denied the procedure until doctors pressured the company to relent. Holston traveled to the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles, one of the nation’s premiere ear clinics, and the surgery was conducted at St. Vincent’s Hospital. When the devise was activated a month later in Atlanta, the results were drastically different. “This time there was a definite uptick,” he writes. “[The technician] said it was the best conversation we’d had in the more than two years I’d been a client. … It was unquestionably an improvement over the original.”
Holston concludes his memoir — fact-filled, enlightening, often revealing in its honesty — with an anecdote. Walking in the woods with Marty, he mistakes the sound made by a dried palmetto frond for a snake, jumping around until he discovered the noise’s innocent source. “I have to laugh,” he writes. “And I have to be grateful…. Snake or no snake, I can hear it.”