Life

Teacher tells of shock at waking up to find he had suffered hearing loss overnight

As many as one in six people suffer hearing loss, including Co Armagh man Mark Montgomery, who woke up one morning with tinnitus and unable to hear in one ear

Co Armagh teacher Mark Montgormery has suffered hearing loss and tinnitus. Picture by Mal McCann
Maureen Coleman

THE subject of hearing loss is currently being highlighted in BBC1 soap EastEnders, in an attempt to show some of the challenges deaf people go through in their daily lives.

For the first time in its history, the drama serial is to introduce a deaf character to help Ben Mitchell come to terms with his hearing loss. In another first for the soap, the actress playing the role will communicate with the character Ben using sign language.

It's a move that's been welcomed by hearing loss charities, with up to 300,000 people in Northern Ireland coping with hearing loss, while 70,000 use hearing aids. In addition, around 275,000 suffer from tinnitus, the sensation of hearing a sound in the absence of any external noise.

One of those is Co Armagh man and father-of-three Mark Montgomery who, prior to last year, had never experienced any issues with his hearing. Mark (58), a secondary school teacher, has since been diagnosed with sensorineural hearing loss in his right ear, mild hearing loss in his left ear and tinnitus.

He says it has taken him until now to accept what has happened but that he's learning to live with it and adapt to the new way of life.

“On June 18 last year I woke up around 5.30am with a ringing noise in my ear,” Mark recalls. “I went back to sleep and when I woke a few hours later, it was still there.

“I couldn't hear a thing in my right ear either, which was pretty scary. I hadn't a clue what was going on. I'd never had any problems with my hearing before and there is no history of deafness in my family.

“The next morning, I went to see my GP who referred me on to the ENT department at Craigavon Hospital. There they carried out three to four hearing tests. I also had an MRI scan done to rule out a tumour or blockage in my ear but there was nothing there.

“I was given steroids for 10 days to see if my hearing came back. It did a little. But the consultant ruled out giving me an injection as he said this was basically as good as it was going to get and that my hearing wouldn't get any better.”

During the tests, Mark, who lives in Richhill with his family, was told he also had hearing loss in his left ear, though not as severe as the right. He has lost a range of frequency which means he can't hear certain words, vowels, consonants and sounds and doctors have no idea what caused the loss.

Mark was fitted with two hearing aids, both which are tuned in differently to accommodate the varying degrees of loss in his two ears. But it wasn't until October that he had them fitted, which meant that when he returned to school after the summer break, he had to struggle on with hearing loss for the month of September.

“That was very tough,” he says. “I was a bit apprehensive at the start, having to tell them about it. Children can be challenging and I wasn't sure how they'd respond. I often have to ask them to repeat themselves. Unless they're looking at me directly or standing in front of me, I can't hear what they're saying.

“But they were very respectful, to be honest. I've had no problems with them at all.”

Following his diagnosis, the Department of Health's Sensory Support Service sent a social worker out to his house to carry out an analysis and see what could be done to make his life easier. A special doorbell was fitted which not only includes a portable alarm that sounds loudly but flashing lights to alert him when someone is at the door.

A tinnitus masking device which plays natural sounds like rain or a flowing river helps him to sleep. But the most beneficial device is a portable loop for the television, which has made a huge difference.

“The hearing loop for the TV is the best thing ever,” Mark says. “I can turn the volume down to zero and it's great for masking the tinnitus.

“Actually, the tinnitus is worse than the hearing loss. I can cope with the hearing aids but tinnitus is there 24/7. I go to bed with it and wake with it. But when I use the portable loop system for the TV, it knocks out all the other sounds around me and the tinnitus.”

Action On Hearing Loss NI also helped Mark, sending a case worker to his workplace to ensure he was being supported. He says technology has been a major factor in helping him cope with his hearing loss and that many businesses are catching up too, with Halifax bank, Tesco and Marks and Spencer introducing a loop system at their tills for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

He still faces daily challenges and misses things he used to enjoy doing like listening to music through headphones. Traffic is also a hurdle.

“For years I've just relied on my senses and not given them a second thought,” he says. “Crossing the road was never an issue. I could hear oncoming traffic. Sometimes I've been out with my wife and she's had to pull me back because I was about to step out on to the road.

“I wanted to buy myself a new pair of really good headphones but when I went and tried them all out, I couldn't hear a thing.”

There are times, he admits, he wonders why this happened to him and at the start, he was naturally frustrated and upset to lose his hearing.

“I guess I'm getting used to it now. It's taken me a long time to accept this sudden loss of hearing,” he says. “I think it's also changed my perspective on life a bit. Through Action On Hearing Loss NI, I've met a lot of people going through their own struggles. Life passed me by in terms of that, being aware of other people's disabilities and struggles. I'm much more aware of that now.”

Claire Lavery, director at Action on Hearing Loss Northern Ireland, says: “Losing your hearing can have a significant effect on a person's life. It may cause them to withdraw from social situations and become more isolated, and we know that hearing loss increases the risk of depression and dementia.

"If you suspect that you or a family member has a hearing loss, please take our free telephone hearing check or make an appointment with your GP. There are many steps you can take to ensure you continue to live life to the full with hearing loss and remain connected to the world around you; including using hearing aids, assistive equipment, or putting our communication tips into action."

"Action on Hearing Loss offers a wide range of support, from one to one support in the workplace to free hearing aid maintenance at drop in support sessions across Northern Ireland – if you are concerned about your hearing please get in touch.”

:: To contact Action on Hearing Loss call 028 9023 9619 or email information.nireland@hearingloss.org.uk

HEARING LOSS FACTS

:: One in six people have some form of hearing loss – 300,000 in Northern Ireland

:: More than 40 per cent of people over 50 have hearing loss, rising to 71 per cent of over-70s.

:: Hearing loss can lead to social isolation, cognitive decline, an increase in anxiety/depression, and can increase the risk of developing dementia by up to five times

:: Research suggests that hearing aids can help to prevent or delay dementia

:: Evidence suggests that people wait on average 10 years before seeking help for their hearing loss

:: To take the Action on Hearing Loss hearing check all 0844 800 3838

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