From silence into sound, cochlear implants change one couple's world

(BPT) - Caroline and Andreas Schwabe are hearing impaired. Well, only Caroline has hearing loss. Andreas can hear just fine. But, as Andreas says, for a couple, hearing is a "we" thing.

Caroline's mother suffered from hearing loss, like many of the women in her family, so, as a newlywed at age 21, it wasn't surprising that Caroline found she needed hearing aids. But, like many people, Caroline admits she was carrying them around in her pocket more than wearing them.

"It's difficult to get used to hearing aids, and learning to filter out unwanted noise is an acquired skill," she says. "It takes effort and energy and the brain needs to work hard at it."

But in her job as a waitress, she began noticing that words like "bill" and "milk" sounded the same. "White" and "wheat" toast sounded an awful lot alike. When she brought a customer oatmeal when he had ordered an omelet, she committed to the hearing aids once and for all. But they didn't keep up with her progressive hearing loss, even as digital technology progressed.

"My last set of digital hearing aids were a huge disappointment for the entire five years I used them," she says. "There seemed no escape from the mumbling and poor audio I was getting. My hearing was getting so bad. I was astonished to realize that I no longer heard consonants and was making up more than I was actually hearing. I was losing touch with people. My life was shrinking."

Around that time Caroline learned she was a candidate for a cochlear implant, an electronic device that's surgically implanted and provides access to sound. Cochlear implants differ from hearing aids in that they are surgically implanted and send electrical impulses through the auditory nerve. They're a good choice for people like Caroline who aren't being helped by hearing aids.

Since 83% of people report a statistically significant improvement in their quality of life after receiving a cochlear implant*, the couple knew it would mean profound change for them. For Caroline, it would mean being closer to people and the world. For Andreas, it would mean discovering what living with a hearing spouse would be like.

Post cochlear implant surgery: A new world

After the surgery, when her cochlear implant was activated, Caroline recognized Andreas's voice right away. She began to understand sounds with shocking speed.

"Everyone’s experience is different, but for us, our world was upside down," Andreas says. "Caroline is discovering the joy of hearing."

One day, something happened that showed Andreas what Caroline's newfound hearing meant to them as a couple. He was in the shower and dropped the shampoo bottle. Caroline burst through the door to ask if he was OK. She had never heard anything so loud and was worried he was hurt.

"For the first time in nearly 30 years I thought, ‘She can hear me. I’m safe.’ It was one of many tearful realizations that just smacks you right in the middle of your face knowing that now, things are different."

Andreas's tips for spouses of cochlear "cyborgs"

When you've been with a spouse who has had profound hearing loss, then has access to sound with a cochlear implant, your lives are going to change.

Andreas and Caroline gave themselves a year to adjust to becoming a hearing couple, and it wasn't always easy. Here are Andreas's best tips for dealing with the transition.

1) Learn to adjust to new ways of communicating with your partner. For 28 years, Caroline would lip-read to hear Andreas better. With her cochlear implant, she looks him in the eyes when they talk.

2) Be prepared for lots of questions. Caroline was out of the habit of asking questions. That's because, if you ask a question, you have to listen and respond to the answer. When you're hearing impaired, it's easier to just pretend you can hear and not say anything. Now that Caroline hears, she is asking questions. A lot of them.

3) They might hear, but not listen. The funniest and sometimes most frustrating thing for Andreas is when Caroline hears what he's saying, but doesn't listen to it. She'll hear him talking and take in the beauty of the sound of his voice ... but not really listen to what he's actually saying.

"She is in love with the sound that she hears," Andreas says. "She can hear every word I say, but still miss it all because the sound is more interesting than the content. That is the story of my life."

Are you or a loved one struggling with hearing loss? Are your hearing aids not enough? Learn more here: https://www.cochlear.com/us/en/home.

Please seek advice from your health professional about treatments for hearing loss. Outcomes may vary, and your health professional will advise you about the factors which could affect your outcome. Always read the instructions for use. Not all products are available in all countries. Please contact your local Cochlear representative for product information. Views expressed are those of the individual. Consult your health professional to determine if you are a candidate for Cochlear technology.

* Reference: Clinical Evaluation of the Cochlear Nucleus CI532 Cochlear Implants in Adults Investigator Meeting. 2019 Apr.

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