Hear It: My Challenging Wax-cleaning

I should open by saying that I am trying as best I can not to come across as overly critical of anyone. I do not think for a minute that the medical professional who saw me intended for my experience to be as it was, and there are things I could have done to make it less likely to have gone that way as well.

That said, I have a disorder called Norrie Disease that renders some unable to communicate what they are feeling or thinking, due to moderate to severe intellectual disability, autism, or some other developmental challenge. So, I take seriously the idea that I can attempt to be a voice for others, of course not having gone through exactly what they are but still being able to give some idea as to what it may be like.

So an audiologist with whom I worked looked at my ears on my last visit to have the aids cleaned. This happened right before the phrenetic events of my Christmas vacation, and in many respects if the aids had to die on me again, I am highly fortunate that they didn’t wait past December 20th to do so. I can’t imagine the displeasure of trying to get by with only one working ear in large family gatherings. Even with both working, functioning in such gatherings takes work.

Anyway, she determined that my right ear in particular was packed to the gills with wax and should be dealt with immediately. She’d wanted to schedule an appointment for that day, but not surprisingly this wasn’t available. So, she had me booked to go in today.

For this appointment, I had to go to UNC Hospital, which is practically on the UNC campus. I managed to get to the Audiology department in time for my 9:45 appointment and settled in the lobby where they were watching some sort of weird cartoon. I also heard kids scampering around, probably burning off energy as their parents tried in vain to keep up.

Soon, I went in to see the nurses and have my initial forms filled out. They weighed me, I’m up to 141 pounds which may be the highest number this skinny person has ever recorded. Then, they started asking me all sorts of scary questions about disease, family history, etc. Standard stuff I know, but nevertheless it makes me nervous.

After a short wait in a doctor’s office, thankfully not too cold, and just as I pulled out the iPhone figuring that it might take longer for him to arrive, the doctor showed up.

“Ok, what are we doing here today?” he asked.

“I’m here to have my wax cleaned out,” I replied. “My audiologist says it’s starting to be a real problem.”

“Ok then, hop on up here,” (I was ushered to a somewhat reclined chair where my head was then placed firmly against its back at an angle), “and take out the aids, one at a time so you can still hear me and will know what to expect.”

Into my right ear went the air machine. I actually don’t really know what it is called, except that it made a fair bit of noise. I could immediately feel it sucking, and thought to myself “ok, maybe this won’t be so bad after all.”

And then, oh but then. He gradually amped up, commenting: “man this stuff is really packed in. That’s common for hearing aid wearers though.”

If I had remembered my last attempt at having this done, I would have suggested that we go ahead and stop there, just letting him prescribe me the eardrops he eventually did recommend I get. You administer them to each ear approximately three times a week for a month, and they’re supposed to loosen up the wax so that it will come out more easily. I’d done this a year or so ago, but then we never went forward with the larger-scale wax removal.

Unfortunately for me, this thought didn’t occur to me. As the machine pulled harder and harder in my ear, first tears began rolling down my eyes.

“Are you ok?” he asked.

“Yeah, this sort of thing just makes my eyes water,” I replied. I’m not crying! I thought to myself.

Within the next few seconds, I practically was crying. I kicked the table, screamed “ouch!” and all but forced him to stop. Oo man! I don’t think I’ve ever experienced pain like that. Oddly, the only thing I could think was “I wonder how on earth women go through with childbirth?”

“I’m about to pass out!” I instructed him once the machine had ceased operating and I’d removed both aids. “Would you happen to have any water available?”

I guess it had occurred to him that I might just need some water at some point, because a full styrofoam cup was in my hand a second later. I gulped it greedily, and just managed to stave off that unwanted episode.

After this, he decided to go ahead with the drops after all and have me return on February 13th for an attempt to complete the process. I was more than a little relieved to get out of there with my hearing in tact.

Except, when I plugged my right-side aid back in, all I heard was the faintest sound of its turn-on tone. “Oh no,” I thought in panic: “I may have lost a lot of my hearing in this ear!”

I muddled my way back on to a bus to Franklin Street to go to Walgreens and collect the prescription, then fired off an email to one of my audiologists to ask what she thought might be happening. I said “and if this loss is permanent, can I begin the process of getting a cochlear implant?”

She replied, correctly I now believe, that things would probably be ok in short order. My canals are kind of small, and thus it’s easy to get things like wax and such lodged in a place and way that it shouldn’t be. As the day has progressed, I’ve noticed more hearing returning as the pain lessens. All I can say to that is Thank God! I envisioned having to make radical changes to my navigation and independence, which I would have done if necessary. But I won’t lie, that sort of adjustment would be hard. I’ll probably have to make it at some point, I imagine.

So I guess the main reason I’m writing about this is to note the importance of really sitting down with the patient, doctor, and perhaps someone who can communicate on the patient’s behalf before treatment is initiated and generating a plan. The thing is, I know that doctors rarely have time to do this. If it doesn’t happen though, it could definitely have less-than-desirable consequences.

Also, it is important to listen to and be aware of the patient’s responses. I can say that he did suspend treatment once it became clear that I could no longer stand it. I’ve heard of cases where this hasn’t happened, and I’d bet it would be more likely if the patient was unable to speak for him or herself.

Just some stuff to think about. I hope all will be normal for me by the weekend, as I still feel some lingering pain but it is now more noticeably decreasing. A nap when I arrived home helped with this. I hope I don’t have any balance issues when returning to work tomorrow, but we shall see. More soon.

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5 thoughts on “Hear It: My Challenging Wax-cleaning

  1. So sorry you had such a bad experience! I actually advocated highly to have the UNC audiology department hire a Rehabilitation Counselor for just this type of reason! (and of course I would have applied haha) Doctors, nurses, and even the audiologists who are all wonderful at UNC just don’t have the time to get through all the communication that should be done. Counseling is necessary for so many of those patients too as they navigate everything from wax cleaning to cochlear implants and all the stages of hearing in between.

  2. Thanks for sharing, John. You always give such amazing insight – I gain a new perspective every time I read a blog post of yours! Hope to see you soon.

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