My Cyborg Life: Ear Upgrades

Late last year, I was reading the article “My Bionic Quest for Bolero“, which is an article in wired about a cochlear implant user who was trying to recapture the sound of an opera he loved before losing his hearing. During the article, he mentions being able to try out new software for his cochlear implant, and how eventually the software progressed to the point where the opera closely matched his last clear listening. A happy ending, to be sure.

Given that article was in 2005, I thought to myself, “Hey! I wonder if there are any software upgrade for MY cochlear implant.” 5 minutes of googling gave me an answer. Not only was there no upgrades for my implant, but my processor was going to reach end of life in early 2010. By the end of March, no more parts for it were to be manufactured.

So I contacted my audiologist for options and did some research. It turns out that there was a new processor model announced in September 2009, the Nucleus 5. Going over the product specs, I was getting a bit excited, and then I learned that it isn’t compatible with my current implant coils. Sad, but the other model, the Freedom, was also somewhat exciting. Everything behind the ear, more sensitivity, new software, all for the price of ~$8000 US. Gah.

The following day, my audiologist got back to me and told me that if I was still under the Ontario Health Plan, they would cover 75% of the cost, as Ontario has a program for medical aids like this. Sadly, I haven’t been covered by Ontario Health Care for quite a few years. My audiologist did suggest I contact the local cochlear team for options, as there may have been a similar program in Nova Scotia that she was unaware of.

Turns out there isn’t. However, the person I talked to was able to tell me that they had applied for funding to upgrade everyone they knew about. Unfortunately, I never informed them that I was in the province, so I wasn’t included and the money was all gone. She did offer to to apply for more money to cover my upgrade and to see what happened. Which obviously I agreed with, as the worst case is that they would say no.

So, I started to stress out a bit about this. $8000 US is a lot of money, obviously, and I wanted to have options if that had to come out of my own pocket. Upgrading wouldn’t be covered by my medical insurance (it would have been if I lost my hearing for the first time though). Upgrading wouldn’t be automatically covered by he NS government. However, if I was an Ontario resident again……. I will admit I considered moving back to Ontario and working for a year to get covered by the Ontario Health Plan again. Another option was to try to get a higher paying job anywhere else in the world, and pay it out of pocket. The final option was to wait until it broke, and pay then, and also hope that the latest version was backwards compatible by then (an extra $2000, but I figured it would be worth it for the latest version, which would also be supported longer).

Thankfully, none of those options needed to exercised. A few days before Christmas, the NS hearing organization called my up and told me that funding had come through, all I needed to do was pick out the colors of my implant and they would order it. A happy ending, to be sure.

3 weeks ago it actually came in, and last Monday I went in for an appointment to pick it up. Things are…. different now. It is certainly more advanced. After a week of it, I know the following.

Pros:

  • It all fits behind the ear. No more cords getting caught, pulled by animals and small children. No more cord being just a little too short when wearing formal wear. No more cord brushing my neck during horror films and freaking me out a bit.
  • It all fits behind the ear, so I don’t have to reach into my pocket, fiddle with controls, and receive odd looks. Now I can look like I am adjusting my hair.
  • Three microphones for greater coverage and sensitivity.
  • New software to take into account the new microphones and sensitivity. Noise reduction mode on this thing is MUCH better than my old model.
  • 4 hearing modes instead of just one. Currently loaded with 2 normal programs, two sound reduction programs. Going to see if I can get it loaded with: 1) Normal mode, 2) Sound reduction mode, 3) Robot mode, and 4) Chipmunk mode. Robot mode and chipmunk mode were maps that I had at various stages when I was originally getting the implant programmed, so I know they are possible.

Cons:

  • Battery life is shorter. Much shorter. 5-6 hour lifespan instead of the 24 hours my old model can get. I don’t know about you, but I am awake for more than 12 hours at a time. Batteries can charge in 4 hours, but this means I need to stop home and charge a battery if I want to use it all day.
  • There is some electronic warble when some people talk. A sort of metallicness to the end of their sentences. Others sound somewhat cartoony. Try having a conversation with your boss after he inhales a small amount of nitrous and see if you can stop yourself from laughing.
  • It’s all behind the ear, and this makes the ear piece bigger. Ear piece + glasses = sore ear. Ear calluses forthcoming.
  • The coil is larger, and heavier, and thus falls off easier. Been trying to adjust the magnet for optimal strength, but nothing fantastic so far. This really sucks for sports, as the old coil and sometimes the headset went flying. No more cord to rein in in. About time for a headband revival anyway…
  • Everything is proprietary. Batteries are proprietary so I can’t just go out and buy AAs when one dies. Technically there is a holder for watch batteries, but they are ‘high powered’ watch batteries which I also thing I just can’t go and grab easily. The audio connector jack is also proprietary, in that iPod cable cable. No longer will a standard 3.5mm audio cable do the trick. Pretty annoying, especially since this results in jacked up prices on items ($200 for a new rechargeable battery, $130 dollars for the audio cable).

I am hopping the first two cons will be eliminated if I went in for a reprogramming of the map. I am still technically using the one from my old processor, and while it does work most of the time, I don’t think it is optimal for the new microphones and sensitivity. Going to give it another week, and then we’ll see.