Say that again...

When her hearing failed, Jane Thynne never thought having babies was the cause
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Indy Lifestyle Online

At a party, someone my own age - early forties - leaned towards me and said: "You'll have to repeat that. I'm going deaf." I almost cheered - it's taken more than a decade, but at last my contemporaries are catching up with me.

At a party, someone my own age - early forties - leaned towards me and said: "You'll have to repeat that. I'm going deaf." I almost cheered - it's taken more than a decade, but at last my contemporaries are catching up with me.

I went deaf in one ear quite suddenly 12 years ago. I spent hours lying on my side with the Earex drops, trying desperately to evict the blockage that somehow and quite conclusively seemed to have shut off my right ear. I was doing this in a blur of fatigue because I had just had my first child and was finding most of my faculties under strain.

Just my luck to have developed a dodgy ear at such an awkward time, I complained to the doctor, who - instantly, and correctly - made the connection. My problem wasn't earwax, but otosclerosis. I had never heard of this, so I was startled to discover that it is the most common form of deafness in young women, and it often develops - or becomes noticeable - during pregnancy.

Otosclerosis affects the bones of the middle ear - the malleus, the incus and the stapes. As every biology pupil knows, these are the three smallest bones in the body. Normally, sound is conducted from the outside into the ear canal; the sound waves vibrate the tympanic membrane and set the bones of the middle ear in motion; and the vibrations pass to the fluid of the inner ear.

With otosclerosis, these bones, most often the stapes, become fixed and stop vibrating as they should. Often the pregnancy hormones, which soften the ligaments elsewhere in the body in preparation for childbirth, promote a spongy overgrowth of new bone and are blamed for accelerating the process. In previous decades, women already suffering from the condition were advised not to have children.

I was - and remain - lucky. There is an 80 per cent chance of otosclerosis affecting both ears, and with each new baby I lived in dread. But in my case (so far) only one ear isn't working as it should, being filled instead with a soft, rushing tinnitus that gets worse when I am stressed or fatigued.

Sixty per cent of cases of otosclerosis are genetic and run in families, although you may have to hunt several generations back before you find another person who was affected.

Though I hadn't heard of it, the condition is far more prevalent than might be expected: about 10 per cent of the adult population is thought to be affected to some degree, and twice as many women as men. Although these cases do result in some hearing loss, is is rarely severe enough to prompt someone into making a visit to the doctor.

"But what can I do?" I wailed on diagnosis. I was not accustomed to the idea of any kind of disability, however minor, that could not be quickly corrected. The suggestion of a hearing aid seemed like a bad joke. There had to be something else.

There was. Swiftly, my consultant lined me up for a stapedectomy, a procedure in which the stapes is removed and a prosthetic one inserted in its place. It is a 45-minute procedure under local anaesthetic, with very few complications. He seemed very keen to do it. He didn't perform many of these, he said, and joked that he would need to lay off the coffee to keep a steady hand.

I fled for a second opinion to a consultant, hunting round for reasons to escape the operation. She asked whether I was contemplating having more children. "Yes." "Well, childbirth can cause it to fail. And sometimes flying."

So apathy and cowardice combined to deter me from surgery. Besides, having one functioning ear meant that I could cope perfectly well. Or so I thought.

Like most people with some hearing loss, I've tended to assume that other people don't really notice. Surely no one is really rolling their eyes and mouthing rude remarks when your back is turned? Well, they are. This became mortifyingly clear when an acquaintance remarked: "Oh, you're deaf! I just thought you were stand-offish, the way you always ignore what I say."

At home, family members are used to repeating themselves - and it serves them right for mumbling - but social situations can be more tricky. My first dinner-party hell came when I was seated next to Rian Malan, a very softly spoken South African writer whose book I had read and loved. But, instead of an intense and admiring conversation about Malan's memoir, I was reduced to senior-style nodding and making vague, inappropriate comments.

Thereafter, I devised a dinner-table posture that involves angling the entire body and the hearing ear around to face the speaker. This means that you are practically sitting on their lap, so it can send mixed messages.

Given that my condition was exacerbated by pregnancy, it seems only right that there should be some payback in the child-rearing arena. And there is. The one benefit of having a deaf ear is that you are able to turn it. Pick the right side to sleep on, and you need never be woken up at night ever again.

Recently, however, I have been reconsidering the merits of the stapedectomy operation. It would be great to have perfect hearing again - just as those of my contemporaries who had been laughing at me are themselves starting to feel the need for surreptitious scrutiny of those advertisements for digital hearing-aids.

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