Guest Columnist

A tiny bird jarred me to action

October is National Audiology Awareness Month

Yellow Warbler poses for a close up along Amana Road NW in Johnson County, Iowa. (Gazette Archives)
Yellow Warbler poses for a close up along Amana Road NW in Johnson County, Iowa. (Gazette Archives)

A tiny migrating warbler changed my life. As I sat on my back deck a few springs ago a tiny bird landed on a twig about 10 feet in front of me. I could see it singing but couldn’t hear a thing.

My hearing loss probably started as an Army trainee in the late ’60s guiding .50 caliber shells into a machine gun. Every time the gun spit a bullet downrange, a massive blast of noise and pressure hit my skull. In later years I spent hours running chain saws, vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers, all to the detriment of my hearing.

Hearing loss is an insidious stealthy condition. It crept up on me so slowly and gradually that I never noticed it. My wife certainly knew something was going on as I increasingly asked her, and everyone else, to repeat sentences. Conversation in restaurants became challenging, and tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, became my constant companion. Night and day my ears never stop buzzing.

Seeing, but not hearing, the warbler spurred me to call Dr. Jennifer Reekers at Heartland Hearing Center in Cedar Rapids. Soon I was sitting opposite her in a hearing test booth that confirmed what I already knew. Low frequency sounds were easy to distinguish but my ability to detect other sounds dropped as high frequency increased. Dr. Reekers shared good news. Thanks to modern technology, she could improve my ability to hear and reduce the pesky tinnitus.

Shortly after receiving my new hearing aids I hiked a six-mile trail to Hanging Rock overlook at Effigy Mounds National Monument. Along the trail I was serenaded by warblers and orioles. In a moist trailside valley, nature’s most beautiful sound brought me joy. It was the first time I’d heard a wood thrush since my hearing declined.

Millions of Americans suffer hearing loss, often caused by loud noise exposure. Although most people realize that gunshots and fireworks can cause hearing problems, few recognize that exposure to common everyday lower intensity noise causes gradual hearing loss. Vacuum cleaners, blenders, coffee grinders, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and the dreadfully loud hand dryers in public restrooms can contribute to permanent hearing loss. Damage is cumulative.

Solutions exist! The best, by far, is to prevent hearing loss by protecting the ears from loud noise. Inexpensive muffs and plugs mute the scream of vacuum cleaners and power tools. I keep a pair by every noisy machine and always put them on before pushing the start button. Rather than using a restroom hand dryer, I keep a clean handkerchief in my pocket and use it to dry my hands. Parents should be especially careful to protect their children’s hearing by choosing quiet toys over shrill ones, and making sure kids wear muffs when exposed to noise.

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Ironically, enjoying music can contribute to hearing loss. Many concerts are at such a high decibel level that even short exposure can lead to lifelong hearing problems. Fortunately, devices are available from audiologists that reduce the volume of noise entering the ear while retaining sound quality. They enable enjoyable safe listening.

By the time I recognized my hearing loss, it was too late to prevent it, but the hearing aids restored my ability to distinguish sounds. I will probably always have tinnitus, but technology has diminished its impact. These days I’m careful to muffle loud noise to avoid further damaging my hearing.

Thanks to Dr. Reekers, my hearing aids help me enjoy conversation, birds, music, and more of life’s delightful sounds. October is National Audiology Awareness Month and I encourage everyone to protect their hearing from loud noise and to seek the help of an audiologist to improve their ability to distinguish sounds.

• Rich Patterson of Cedar Rapids is a writer and ecological consultant who co-owns Winding Pathways LLC with his wife, Marion. Comments: www.windingpathways.com

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