Written by Pat Heitz for our travel blog
Aimee & Leo have decided to take a break from the life that their parents have shown them. They have left their jobs and will be traveling South America for 6 months, and I don’t think it is necessarily a bad idea.
South America has always been on my bucket list and time is passing. Aimee convinced me to meet them in Lima Peru, where we could take the Gringo Trail and end in Machu Picchu. I bought the ticket.
A week before I was to leave a most unusual and disturbing thing happened to me. Chris, my son, and two of my grandchildren spent the night with me. All that day I experienced a strange sensation of fullness in my ears, and I thought they were plugged up. I started taking cold tablets but they didn’t help.
Sunday morning Chris and the kids got up early to eat breakfast and hike at Clifty Falls State Park in Madison. Not necessarily ranking at the top of the grandparent list, I was quite surprised when my strong willed 2-year-old granddaughter refused to go and said she wanted to stay with me. We made breakfast, played, and took a walk in the neighborhood. I noticed when she called for me I could not tell what room she was in. On our walk I couldn’t distinguish where the traffic was coming from. I was becoming concerned.
I called Lisa, an ER nurse, and she said what I experienced was a fairly common problem. She said the ears can become compacted with wax and that irrigation normally helps. We irrigated my ears for 2 days until they were raw. A lot of wax came out but still I could not hear out of my right ear. I called my son, a family practice doctor in Chicago, who said I should take steroids and make an appointment with an ENT specialist just in case.
No one ever likes to hear a medical person say “just in case.” I arranged for a steroid shot and found an ENT appointment in Columbus explaining I was to leave the country soon. I made the appointment just in case, assuming my hearing would return promptly and the appointment would be cancelled.
Later I Googled sudden hearing loss in one ear and I didn’t like what I discovered. There is a rare condition called Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss, SSHL. With this condition hearing loss occurs in a matter of hours and is accompanied with Tinnitus (ringing and odd sounds in the ear). I had been feeling a sensation of wind blowing in my ears while I was hearing deep voices. Later the voices changed to bells which was much less disturbing because they reminded me of the alter bells that Father Meny had us ring years ago as altar boys. SSHL only affects about one in 10,000 people and is considered a medical emergency. The odds of recovery are not great; the accepted treatment is with steroids. Treatment started 7 days after onset makes recovery increasingly less likely.
I went to the ENT appointment even though I have a high medical deductible. I accepted that it would cost me a fortune to do nothing else but remove deep seated ear wax that was blocking my ear canal. It really didn’t matter though because when I went to Peru, I wanted to hear.
The first requirement for the exam was an auditory test. Of course when they called my name, I looked in the wrong direction in response. The test results showed some hearing loss at certain pitch levels in my good ear. We agreed it was most likely caused by working around loud equipment without proper hearing protection. I was unsure what to think when the audiologist said I would probably have the same hearing loss in my bad ear if I could hear out of it. Yes, I flunked the test in my bad ear. I think I got one word right and I believe the word was baseball.
Making the best of the situation I told myself wearing a hearing aid wouldn’t be so bad. Well it turns out that was not an option. As I understand it the problem is in the wiring from the ear drum to the brain. Information is not being processed correctly and a hearing aid would only magnify noises that my brain could not understand.
I had a long wait in the exam room so I researched more on my phone. When the Nurse Practitioner Specialist came in I already knew I had won the lottery and I was probably screwed. Lindsay Cool, who actually is not cool anymore only because she recently got married, explained everything to me that I had already read about. She said it was great that I had received a steroid shot and that we would follow up with strong oral steroids and a steroid shot directly in the ear. The shot in the ear didn’t hurt even though I read it would be extremely painful.
Lindsay said statistically the odds of recovery were 30% but not to pay any attention to the numbers. Yea right, I thought. You’re talking to a lottery winner! She said the cause was usually idiopathic, (unknown causes), my new word for that day, but we would take blood tests. We would also schedule an MRI of the head to see if anything was affecting the auditory nerve. I remember thinking that the MRI shouldn’t be necessary because any of my children could tell her I had nothing in my head.
I told her about my trip to Peru that I would be canceling. Surprisingly she said no, I was not to cancel it. My next appointment would be in a month, the blood test results would not be back, and an MRI has to have insurance approvals. I believe that was her polite ways of saying suck it up and stop feeling sorry for yourself. Put on your big boy pants leave here and live your life.
I decided I was still going on my trip. Peru was going to meet one jacked up, hard of hearing, Southern Indiana Americano.
Traveling the Gringo Trail and admiring the beauty of the Peruvian landscape, one long bus trip follows another, and I had plenty of time to reflect on life. I realized that I was learning to turn my good ear to those who are talking while watching their lips as they speak. I admit that I cling to hopes of spontaneous recovery which is known to happen in some cases. After all, my Mom has said prayers to Saint Jude, and I have put in a few well-thought-out words on my own behalf to the man upstairs. Still whatever happens, I know that I will look on life differently.
Taking a break from writing I look out the bus window as we climb into the mountains. Our bus is passing slower trucks loaded with heavy cargo on this unkempt two lane highway. The driver seems to have little regard for the traffic coming down the mountain in the other lane. As I turn away from this game of chicken, it becomes clear that the desert has slowing been turning to green. I realize that this has been a good trip. It has reminded me that nothing in life remains the same. We must live life to its fullness and never waste a single day. Life is a gift that demands to be faced strongly, and we must absorb every morsel it chooses to give us no matter which of our senses we must use.
On the bus, we are approaching Lake Titicaca, which is the world’s highest navigable body of water and a destination on the Trail. There we plan on visiting people who live on islands and huts that are made of nothing but the reeds that grow in the shallows of the lake.
Suddenly my concentration is disturbed. A baby in the seat directly behind me lets out a deafening shrill; it is one of the most pleasing sounds that I have ever heard. It vibrates clearly in my bad ear.
Finally, our long journey comes to an end in Aguas Calientes, a small remote village at the base of Machu Picchu, and I believe I have arrived in Never Never Land. Before dawn with flashlights in hand we join a group of backpackers who are mostly in their twenties and hike up the mountainside. Most people however chose not to rough it and take buses that crisscross back and forth up to the ruins. But no matter which way you choose to arrive, there awaits a majestic view of a long lost culture and more mountains to climb.
My hearing has continued to improve which is probably a result of the early steroid treatment but maybe the high altitude and exertion of the climb has had something to do with my improvement. However, I prefer to believe that the magic of this mountaintop and the spiritual warmth that lives in this place has enhanced my healing. Walking the ruins I sense the living presence of those who have walked these trails before me, and it reinforces my belief that after death there is still life.
This is Patrick Henry Heitz, Aimee’s father. Thank you for lending me your ear.