Pending Ear Surgery

For those that don’t really care about my medical drama or who only want the short version: I have to have surgery, I (probably) won’t die, but it will likely result in some changes in my life. Oh, and I’m a little freaked out about it.

For those who have been asking questions or have generally been concerned about the random and unintentionally cryptic posts I’ve been making on various social networks, the story is quite a bit longer. Grab a drink and settle in, because this will take a bit.

To preface, I have had seven1 surgeries on my ears in the course of my life. That’s not an exaggeration like when you say you’ve had a dozen drinks when you could only finish one, or when you say your pug dog weighs a million pounds. I have literally had seven surgeries on either or both of my ears since I was a child. Most of them were various tubes being inserted (or reinserted) into my ears, but some were more significant.

Particularly, in 2005, I had a radical mastoidectomy on my right ear to remove a cholesteatoma from my inner ear. If you don’t want to surf through medical jargon, just know that I had a ball of skin and other junk in my ear, and it required a saw to get it out. My ear canal was destroyed as part of the procedure, and ultimately rebuilt in a subsequent surgery, along with my inner ear bones (which had been worn down by said mutant skin ball) and my eardrum (which was generally just a wreck from years of medical problems). My hearing actually improved in that ear, it has since been healthy, flying in planes has been easier for me, and all for the low price of not being able to use earbuds and having glasses sit on my face at an odd angle (because of the scar tissue behind my ear).

Earlier this year, I had a few colds and/or allergy attacks. Because of all my ear problems in the past, sinus trouble tends to hit my ears harder than my nose, and I had a couple of cases of blockage in my left ear. Further, I had been getting dizzy slight more than usual. It was enough that I wanted to at least get my ears checked and make sure that my right ear hadn’t gone back to causing problems.

The good news was that my right ear continues to be healthy and dry. The ENT looked at my left ear (which has always been a crazy quilt of “how the fuck does that still work” for years) and said that while it appeared generally healthy, he wanted me to see a specialist just to be sure. That wasn’t surprising — my experience in 2005 was from a skull base specialist referall from my ENT at the time — so after a few weeks fighting my insurance to see the right kind of specialist (yes, Aetna, an otologist is different from an otolaryngologist, you fucking twats), I went to see Dr. Alvarez back in July.

The initial signs were promising — he said that my right ear was very healthy (and complimented me on my surgeon’s skill), and that the left ear was mildly concerning, but nothing urgent. He ordered an MRI just because he wanted to see the inner ear in more detail, but I left feeling relatively unconcerned. I might need a small tube to keep that ear healthy, but it seemed okay. The MRI was just a precaution. I schedule the MRI, got the results back, and scheduled a follow-up for August 1st.

When I got there, he came in with another physician, which immediately concerned me. Dr. Alvarez explained that I had another cholesteatoma, this time in the epitympanic recess or “attic” of my middle ear. Essentially, the infection was attached to my inner ear bones and acting as a vibratory conduit, picking up the slack of the rest of my ear and increasing my hearing. The mystery of why my left ear was a mess but working so well was solved: my illness was actually improving my hearing. I was left with a dilemma: since this is my stronger ear, I could leave it be and hope that the infection would stop or reverse itself (something Dr. Alvarez has never seen happen), or I could get surgery and lose hearing. We talked it through, but in all honesty it wasn’t really a decision, as my health is more important than my hearing.

Last time, I got through this with not only a healthier ear, but improved hearing. This time, that’s very unlikely — the thing we’re trying to cure has been artificially boosting my hearing, so all the strategy is around reducing the hearing loss as much as possible. For years I’ve been on the edge of needing a hearing device, but this will confirm it. After this is done and I fully recover (one week to physically recover from the surgery, and 2-3 months before my hearing returns to whatever levels are now considered “normal”), we will looking into hearing aid options. It is also likely that my right ear will become my dominant ear, after years of training myself to use my left ear.

All that being said, I’m in a good place for a number of hearing aid options. I’m a candidate for a bone-anchored hearing aid (or “Baha” device), which means I wouldn’t need a separate device at all, although I would need another surgery. There’s also been a distinct jump in digital hearing aid technology, and Apple recently announced hearing aid support for iOS devices in iOS 6 as well as “made for iPhone” hearing aids.

My surgery is August 27th at 5:30am. It’s outpatient, so I won’t be in there long enough to send anything — if all goes well, I should be home later that morning.

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  1. I originally had this as “thirteen,” but going through my pre-op process, it turns out it’s only been seven. I’ve been hospitalized thirteen times, though.