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Beat the stigmas of hearing loss

I'm 9 years old, sitting on my grandparents' couch. Granddad doesn't even notice the brain-rattling squealing noise coming from his ears until my sister says something and he fumbles with his hearing aids long enough to knock the sound down (all those years in the field from the seat of that old International 706 took their toll). We roll our eyes and exchange looks of relief and frustration. Good thing he can't see very well either.

That's one of the first things I thought about when my ENT told me another round of surgery on my ears would not only run the risk of not working, but also cause me to possibly lose 100% of my hearing. The only real option, he said, was hearing aids.

I'm 31 years old. I'm not old enough for hearing aids yet. They're expensive. It's going to be a huge hassle. My friends will think it's crazy. My 2 1/2-year-old daughter will get ahold of them and destroy them. My dog will eat them.

Every one of these thoughts crossed my mind in the first minute or 2 after my doctor's assessment. Even after my audiologist showed me the hearing aids I'd eventually wear, it felt weird. I wasn't old enough to wear hearing aids. I just didn't need them yet. Right?

What?

In the few weeks I had to wait before I got my hearing aids, I kept having these thoughts. But then, I started keeping track of all the times when my wife would ask me something and I wouldn't hear her. I'd watch the look on her face as I turned the TV up loud enough to hear the game or the news. I counted the number of times my daughter -- just learning to talk -- would tell me something and I'd have to ask my wife what she said.

I guess maybe I do need them. Still, it sucks. I don't want hearing aids.

"People most generally struggle with the stigma of wearing hearing aids. I think that there's some misunderstanding about how they help. I think that they tend to see they're becoming their grandfather -- with the squealing hearing aid -- turning it up and down and down."

I can't help but laugh out loud when Carolyn Sheridan, BSN, clinical director for the Spencer, Iowa-based AgriSafe Network tells me that. Exactly!

Then, I go in to my audiologist's office to get them. I put them on. "Almost everybody gets in their car when they leave and think something's wrong with it immediately because they're hearing things they haven't been able to hear before," my audiologist said as I walked out of her office with my new ears.

I start my car and immediately hear the A/C emitting a little squeaking noise. I'd never heard it before.

I go home later. It feels like a sledgehammer hitting me between the eyes every time my dog barks at something outside. I don't have to read my wife's lips (something I'd subconsciously begun doing years ago, people tell me now). I can not only hear what my daughter was telling me, but I can hear her breathe.

I would have missed that, I thought after having the kind of conversation a guy can have with his 2 1/2-year-old daughter.

Wow.

I get kind of sick of everybody in my family telling me how great it was that I finally got hearing aids. I didn't do it for pats on the back. I didn't do it because I wanted to, either. But, I did it. And, it's one of the best decisions I've ever made in my life.

What I went through, from the moment I learned my ear surgeries had been botched and I'd need hearing aids, is not unique. Most people go through it, Sheridan says, especially farmers. Farmers are among the most susceptible in the world to hearing loss. The reasons are fairly obvious and the statistics are serious and numerous. But, one is particularly sobering.

"Young farmers at 35...often have the hearing of other men at age 50-55 who have not had frequent loud noise exposure," according to Janet Ehlers, RN, MSN, with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health/Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. That hits home.

But, Ehlers has good news: Hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears, which I have, too) "due to noise is preventable."

I know what you're thinking. I have thought it, too. You know you can't hear 100%. You know all those hours on the tractor have taken a toll. But, it's not bad enough for hearing aids yet. You're not your grandfather. You can just turn up the radio or TV and have folks repeat themselves once in a while. No big deal, right?

I know exactly what you mean. Or, rather, I KNEW what you mean. Until I heard my little girl whisper something to me and I actually heard it. If that's not enough to overcome all the stigmatizing excuses you can make up for not going in and having your hearing checked, then I don't know what in the world is.

Besides, you can't even see these little things sticking out of my ears.

If you ever have any questions or experience to relate, I'd love to hear them. And, if you're on the fence about hearing aids, let me know. Trust me, it's worth it. You'll experience a whole new world.

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