The Cat, My Husband, and a 70’s Rock Song

The Cat, My Husband, and a 70’s Rock Song: My Personal Hearing Loss Journey

by Dr. Jennifer A. Bebee, CCC-A, F-AAA

In my line of work, I see mostly folks over the age of 55 because they’re struggling with hearing loss and when I share that I, too, have hearing loss and know all too well about this struggle, I’m met with many questions. A lot of my patients assume that I got into this field because of hearing loss, but that’s not the case. I actually took a course my junior year of undergrad in Speech and Hearing Sciences and became hooked. I am, however, blessed to work in an industry and business where having hearing loss has actually helped me be a better healthcare provider to my patients. It’s been a rough journey, my relationship with having hearing loss, but I’m changed for the better, in my opinion.
It was the winter/spring semester at Ohio University in my sophomore year, undergrad. I was in the graphic design program and really busting my hump to earn the grades I demanded of myself and commit myself to each homework assignment asked of me – pulling all-nighters finishing up a big art project, studying late into the night and early in the morning for my seemingly impossible Art History Course, and trying to hold down a part-time job slinging burritos (still one of my favorite jobs ever). Needless to say, I was exhausted and worn down, and so was my immune system, which is how my little kitty, Lillie, became the source of my hearing loss.
That’s right — my cat Lillie, or rather, Cat Scratch Fever. It’s not just a really catchy 70’s rock song, it’s a specific bacterium that you contract from, you guessed it, a cat scratch! My sweet, little Lillie and I met in the Fall semester while I was attending Ohio University my sophomore year. I adopted her from the shelter when she was 6 weeks old and the rest is history – we’re still in love and snuggling nightly, going on 15 years this upcoming Autumn season. Typically Cat Scratch Fever (Disease) gets dealt with by a person’s immune system without complication, but it took its toll because my immune system was really worn down. I had a lump on the side of my neck the size of a golf ball, which was actually a swollen lymph node– telltale indication of Cat Scratch Disease; but, at the time, I was told it may be cancer! Imagine my relief at finding out it was only a bacterium to be treated with simple antibiotics.
Except, the antibiotics weren’t exactly simple, or even easy to deal with – I was prescribed heavy doses and kept on those heavy doses for over 4 months. That right there, those antibiotics, were ototoxic, meaning that they can be very hazardous to the auditory system, and likely cause hearing loss with continued use or with high doses; both of which, was happening to me as part of my treatment to just get that pesky lymph node to stop swelling. I wasn’t made aware of the potential for ototoxicity as part of my treatment and stayed on the medication until I was no longer instructed to do so.
Fast forward 2.5 years later and I’m in graduate school at Indiana University, my first semester and I’m getting my hearing tested and it’s not looking good. I had no idea that I even had hearing loss – I’m in my early 20s, so naturally I’m invincible, so when my classmate said, “Hey, I think you have hearing loss,” I was resistant. That’s an understatement; I actually told them they were wrong (whoops) and I asked a professor to test my hearing instead of the grad student — this was the denial stage. I did have hearing loss; it was significant and nothing but hearing aids could make it better.
I digested that pill of information for a full 3 years longer before I finally conceded and accepted my hearing loss for what it is and embraced it. Prior to that blossoming and wonderful moment of true acceptance, I was a bit of a mess. I cried about it. I thought, “Why Me?!” numerous times. I even went back to the denial stage and tried to take another hearing test thinking it would show I had completely normal hearing, which would make my life so much… so much… so much, what? Would my life be better if I didn’t have hearing loss? I can’t say if that would be true or not. I certainly wouldn’t have the perspective I have. I don’t think I’d be richer, or prettier, or more well-liked, or more competent, or anything of actual value. I just wouldn’t have the label of being hearing impaired. All the effort of trying to deny or avoid my hearing loss just didn’t seem worth it in the end. I started wearing hearing aids my first year of graduate school – a major concession on my part; but I still didn’t truly and fully identify as a person with hearing impairment; that would come later, 3 years later to be exact.
I fully embraced my hearing loss when I met my husband, just those 3 years later. I was in my clinical rotation at a large hospital in Colorado (my new and forever home) and I started dating my husband (not my husband at the time, but just wait, I snatched him up fast). My husband is a pretty reserved guy – understatement of the year. He’s very quiet and not at all outgoing. He’s the epitome of Wallflower and getting him to share information requires a skill level of covert interrogation that I’ve learned to master over the years. So, knowing that he doesn’t share that much about himself, when he and I were out to dinner one night and he was talking to me about himself, I missed what he said and asked him to repeat himself. He obliged, but I could tell it wasn’t exactly what he’d said before – it was filtered the second time and not as genuine as the first moment he shared it.
I couldn’t tell if it was the restaurant noise interfering, the fact that he tends to get quiet when he’s talking about himself, or the fact that I wasn’t wearing my hearing aids and it might have been my hearing loss that led to that blundered exchange, but I wasn’t willing to risk it a second time. I decided that night that I didn’t ever want to miss a thing he said because of my hearing loss; his words were too important to me – he was too important to me. I began wearing my hearing aids from sun-up to sun-down every day, no skipping, no excuses.
It’s been nothing but beneficial since then. Only when I started wearing my hearing aids full-time did I begin to see the true benefit they hold for me (and my family). I’m more engaged, I have more energy, I don’t miss what people say the first time, and I feel more confident — All are huge positives. It seems silly to even consider that I tried to deny and avoid my hearing loss and hearing aids initially, but I know why we do it. I know what it’s like to struggle with that and the effort involved to commit to change. I know what my patients go through on a daily basis and I’m there for them, there with them, in that moment. It’s a good feeling knowing that my vulnerability is a tying bond between others that allows me to support someone else in their time of need. Thank goodness for my cat, and my husband.

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