PUMPING IRONY: I Hear Ya

A rare visit to a conventional doctor brings a solution to my hearing troubles.

I’m a great believer in the power of holistic medicine, alternative therapies like acupuncture, homeopathy and other approaches that treat the whole person rather than focusing on symptoms. But, I have to admit that sometimes conventional doctors really know what they’re doing.

For several weeks, I’ve been suffering from a frustrating loss of hearing. My ears felt plugged and nothing I tried would open them up. My acupuncturist stuck needles in them to no avail. The homeopathic remedy I took had no measurable effect. And I was beginning to think I would just have to go through life playing the annoying old man whose entire vocabulary revolves around the word, “Huh?”

Now, most people faced with this sort of problem would dial up their doctor and set up an appointment. No big deal. Let them figure out what’s up. But I’ve been of the opinion that Western medicine doesn’t have a lot of tools to offer besides pharmaceuticals and surgery, and I’m not keen on either one of those options. Something must be happening inside my body that’s causing me to lose my hearing, I figured. Some weird sinus congestion that’s causing some inflammation in my ear canal or maybe something connected to an overgrowth of candida albicans. These sorts of things defy Western medicine; they require a more subtle approach.

But at a certain point, even true believers like myself have to admit that the subtle approach isn’t working that well. So I eventually broke down and scheduled an appointment at a local clinic. I showed up in their waiting room on Friday afternoon with more than a little trepidation. After all, it’s been 14 years since I’d last set foot in a doctor’s office, and I didn’t really know what to expect. It felt like hostile territory.

Still, I signed the various forms and tried my best to reply to the questions posed by the receptionist without asking her to repeat herself too often. Then I took a seat and resigned myself to a long wait.

Only a few minutes had passed before a nurse called my name and led me into the doctor’s office, where she asked me several questions about my general health history (I’m still not sure whether one was “Do you use illegal drugs?” or “Have you used illegal drugs?” Either way, I figured, there was plausible deniability). Then she went off to find the doctor.

My physician turned out to be a nice young man of Indian descent who asked me several more questions before looking into my ears with his ear-o-scope, checking out my tonsils (still proudly in place) and feeling around under my jaw for some reason that I assumed was related to something glandular. Then he announced that Maria, the nurse, would clean my ears out.

“This procedure may cause some dizziness and pain,” he warned. “If so, just take some Tylenol and you should be fine.”

With that, he was gone, and I was left to ruminate on the various possible designs of a state-of-the-art ear-cleaning machine. Western medicine is highly attracted to large and complex technology, and I momentarily recalled the “artificial lungs” that were popular in my youth. I could imagine a large, but fashionably designed ear-cleaning helmet that might be lowered carefully over my head while a highly trained technician sitting behind a lead-lined wall flipped the switch that would send earwax-seeking neutrons on a search-and-destroy mission. It’s perfectly safe, as far as we know….

Hearing Is Believing

Before long, Nurse Maria returned with what appeared to be a quart-sized spray bottle connected to a narrow tube. The label on the bottle identified this piece of medical technology as “The Elephant Ear Wash.” It contained, according to Nurse Maria, “hydrosomethingorother in saline solution.” She repeated the doctor’s warning that this could make me dizzier than normal, instructed me to hold a small plastic receptacle beneath my right ear, stuck the tube into the useless organ and started pumping.

The solution flowed into my ear with a comforting whoosh sound and flowed back out with bits and pieces of wax in a sickly auburn-colored liquid that Nurse Maria deemed too “gross” for me to review. She went through a quart of the hydrosomethingorother, dabbed at the ear, and left to get a refill. I couldn’t tell if it had made any difference.

It wasn’t until she’d gone through another quart on my left ear that I began to notice a difference in the decibel level of the world. But it was subtle. I wasn’t completely sure until the doctor returned to check Nurse Maria’s work, consult his notes and turn to me with a grave look.

“Mr. Cox, you’re 60 years old,” he said, as if he’d just done the math.

“Yes,” I replied. “Yes I am.” My voice seemed slightly louder than I had remembered. I knew what was coming.

“There are some screenings we should . . .”

“Oh, I’m not really interested in those,” I piped in, hoping not to hurt his feelings. “I’ve done a lot of research and there are pros and cons.”

He smiled. “Yes, they’re a bit controversial.”

“Yeah. Really. I’m good. Thanks.”

“Would you like a tetanus shot?”

“Not really.”

He didn’t push it, and I didn’t deliver the lecture I’d prepared, complete with the results of randomized clinical studies and quotes from noted physicians. He shook my hand and told me a return visit would not be necessary.

I thanked him with what felt like genuine sincerity. Then I located Nurse Maria on my way back to the lobby and made a point to shake her hand. I was pretty sure I could hear again, but it wasn’t until I was back outside and pedaling my bike home that it really hit me. Springtime is really loud.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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