How an ear implant gave an Edmonton woman a new lease on life

Caroline Schwabe was in her teens when she started to lose her hearing. It was gradual, it was genetic and it was inevitable.

Caroline Schwabe can now hear clearly for the first time in more than two decades

Andreas and Caroline Schwabe documented their journey as Caroline received a cochlear implant. (Andreas and Caroline Schwabe/Supplied)

Caroline Schwabe was in her teens when she started to lose her hearing. It was gradual, it was genetic and it was inevitable.

The 47-year-old has needed hearing aids since she was 21. But as her hearing further deteriorated, she was unsure how long she'd be able to keep using the devices.

"I think I was pretty well at the end of the road in terms of hearing aids," Schwabe told CBC Radio Active's Rod Kurtz. 

This 2012 photo shows a cochlear implant, which helps move vibrations through the hearing process and into the brain to interpret. (Chuck Beckley/The Associated Press)

While getting her hearing tested, she was asked whether she'd considered a cochlear implant.

In the ear, the cochlea receives sound in the form of vibrations. The vibrations cause the stereocilia to move and then convert the vibrations into nerve impulses sent to the brain to interpret.

Schwabe said she thought the implants were only for people who are "capital-D Deaf," and that someone like her wasn't eligible for it.

But she was eligible and was approved for the surgery. "I can't tell you how emotional that was. I can't tell you how grateful I am," she said.

Activation day

She had her surgery in mid-December. She completely lost her hearing in her right ear, which is normal post-surgery, until the implant is activated.

Before "activation day," Schwabe hoped her experience with the implant would be a positive one. She's the first member of her family to have the implant surgery.

"I really hope that my experience is a good experience so that [my family] will see that," she said.

She was excited to be able to hear more than muffled sounds for the first time in more than two decades. "I'm thirsty for that sound. I want to hear everything," Schwabe said.

After the implant is activated, it usually takes anywhere from six months to a year before people start to hear normally.

But for Schwabe, it took just days.

Ahead of the curve

Speaking with CBC's Radio Active after activation, Schwabe remembered feeling curious the moment the implant was turned on. "I was fascinated instantly," she said.

It was tough for her at first. "I could not decipher the difference between [certain sounds]," she said.

As she got used to determining the differences between certain sounds — like the difference between the "s" sound and the "sh" sound — she started to hear a bit better.

Her husband, Andreas Schwabe, was prepared to help her learn to hear again. But her incredibly fast progress was unheard of, even among her doctors.

"Caroline is really unusual, and not just because she's married to me," Andreas said. "The average rehab to be able to understand what cochlear implant recipients are hearing, it takes generally a few months."

Andreas said Caroline finished her rehab in three days.

"I'm beside myself," Caroline said of her surgery. "I'm overwhelmed with joy and gratitude and a sense of lightness and freedom and youth."

It's been almost as much of an adjustment for Andreas has it has for Caroline. For the first time in their marriage, they're able to have a conversation with one another while in different rooms.

Before the implant, Andreas had to make sure Caroline saw him to ensure he didn't startle her. It wasn't an exact science. "I startled her a dozen times a day and I hate it and I can't avoid it," he said.

But now, he's still getting used to the idea of her being able to hear him when he's walking around upstairs, so much so that he's still checking in to make sure she's seen him, even if she responds to what he's saying.

I'm overwhelmed with joy and gratitude and a sense of lightness and freedom and youth.- Caroline Schwabe

Caroline said she is grateful to have her hearing back. And although her hearing issues are genetic, she cautions others to be a little more cautious of their hearing.

"If your ears are ringing the next day, don't do that again," she said. "We put ourselves into situations that damage our hearing all the time. We don't think about it."

Andreas and Caroline have a podcast detailing their journey with her cochlear implant called My Beautiful Cyborg. Check that out here.

With files from Rod Kurtz