By Joseph Palmersheim – SUN NEWSPAPERS
The music was so loud that children were running away with hands on their ears, but Monique Hammond sat through the church fundraising concert despite her discomfort.
By the next afternoon, the Golden Valley resident had lost all of the hearing in her left ear. It happened in September 2005, and she suspects it was connected to a viral infection. She recently documented a five-year search for answers in her 359-page book, “What Did You Say? An Unexpected Journey Into the World of Hearing Loss.”
Monique describes the concert as a “a very loud noise exposure.” The hearing in her left ear began to fade around 3 p.m. the following day, as the hospital pharmacist was teaching a pharmacology class. It was gone by 7 p.m.
“I felt that ear shutting down,” she said. “It was just like coming down with a cold – gradual, gradual, gradual. All of a sudden, it gets stuffy and you try to pop it. I didn’t get dizzy or anything. I kept going. By the time I was out of the school, I said to (my husband) Ross, ‘Something funny happened on the way to the forum. I am just totally deaf in my left ear.’”
Monique became ill that evening. The world began spinning when her head hit the pillow and she was “phenomenally ill,” which she says happens to about 50 percent of people who come down with sudden hearing loss. A hospital test confirmed her deafness and a buzzing noise soon developed. It has not subsided.
“I call it ‘the ear event’ in my book because it changed my life,” Monique said. “I was lying (in a hospital bed) wondering, ‘How am I supposed to be functional?’”
“Monique has always been a high energy person,” Ross said. “(She’d) run out of energy right away (after the hearing loss). She was tired, frustrated. She was much more negative than she used to be, everything was black. She’s usually pretty positive. She’d come home from the pharmacy and call them back three times – ‘What was the medicine again?’”
Hammond eventually made the decision to step down as a hospital pharmacist after it became clear her hearing loss could put patients at risk.
“The potential for misunderstanding is really very great, and you can actually hurt people,” she said. “That spooked me. I always tried to verify everything that was being said to me … repeating, but in an emergency, you can sometimes not do that. It became impossible, basically, to work.”
Hammond graduated from the University of Minnesota and worked in American and European health systems, but found gaps in her knowledge about hearing. What do hearing tests do? How do they apply to my life? It became “like a huge research project for me,” she said.
“We have to learn about our ears and hearing the way we do about cancer or diabetes,” Monique said. “It’s one of our most precious senses. When I am talking to people about hearing loss, I tell them that I was not born deaf or hard-of-hearing. I am a person who came into this later in life. I had pristine hearing. It was my best feature. There is a lot of emotional burden that goes with (hearing loss).”
Some the hearing in her left ear eventually came back. This allows her occasionally to use a hearing aid but she says the sound is muffled and distracting. Hammond describes it as “like hearing through broken glass.” Her right ear fatigues more easily now, she said, and she notices tinnitus (a ringing noise) creeping into that ear.
“The focus and the intensity it takes to listen, process and understand becomes like another job,” Monique said. “You don’t want to always ask people what they said. Hearing aid or no, it was phenomenally tiring. The emotional burden is overwhelming and leads some people to withdraw socially. There are people who are totally stranded on ‘isolation island,’ as I call it in the book, because it is too much work and they feel like a burden to other people.”
Hammond’s difficulties with coping led her to the Golden Valley-based Twin Cities chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America. She will become the organization’s president in May. Membership is around 200 people, with nearly 30 members attending meetings on a regular basis.
“(Meetings) can be quite emotional,” Ross said. “This woman came and she was a nurse and we had a particularly good meeting where we had a psychologist who specialized in hearing loss. The woman stood up and started crying, and said, ‘I’ve had hearing loss for 20 years. I’ve learned more today than I have in the last 20 years.’ We have quite a lot of times like that.
“I came and I got help from the group,” Monique said. “The first time I was there, it … was just like an explosion. All of a sudden, bam, I was in this world, with one foot in the hearing world and with one foot in the hearing loss world, and sort of torn in between. This is far-reaching. It goes through every phase of my life. That, to me, was the big revelation, and I have stayed with the group. You go to support your peers. We listen, we know and we don’t judge.”
Information on “What Did You Say?” can be found at what-did-you-say.net. The book can also be ordered at Amazon.com. Monique Hammond can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Twin Cities chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America meets 10 a.m. the third Saturdays of June through September at Courage Center. More information on the organization can be found at hlaatc.org.