Monday, December 28, 2009

Chapter 22: Grounded

The trouble started one morning while I was shaving. Suddenly I was aware that I could not hear my watch ticking. The watch sat in its normal position on the tiled surface adjacent to the washbasin. I lifted the watch up, shook it and checked that it was running. Sure enough the second hand was still marching round the dial. But I could not hear it. Puzzled, I held the watch to my left ear. Yes, the watch was ticking, albeit faintly. Still framed in shaving cream, the face in the mirror looked back at me with a puzzled expression.

Had I gone deaf?

Yes. Overnight I had apparently gone deaf in my left ear. Worried now, I held the watch up by my right ear. Again, as I moved the watch closer I could hear a faint ticking. It was slightly louder than the other ear, but nothing like the normal ticking.

Then I remembered. A week or so previously I had been suffering from a cold. This temporary deafness was probably no more than the lingering effects of the cold. Thus rationalized, the problem seemed of little concern. I finished my shave and went downstairs to breakfast.

Later that week I was flying again. I had no problems with my ears during climbs or descents. However when the deafness showed no signs of clearing up, I began to get concerned and went to see an ear specialist. After a battery of hearing tests was completed, the results were devastating. The specialist informed me that I was suffering from progressive otosclerosis in both ears. Basically the problem was calcification of the chain of tiny bones in the middle ear. Instead of vibrating as normal to transmit sound, the bones were slowly but surely fusing together. The process was irreversible, and eventually I would go completely deaf.

For a time the situation was manageable while I was flying. I simply turned up the volume of the radio and could hear the controllers perfectly well. However on the ground the situation in day-to-day living became increasingly frustrating as my hearing deteriorated. I could not hear telephone messages, conversation became increasingly difficult and my wife and family suffered as my deafness got worse.

In front of me loomed the frightening prospect of complete deafness. I was still flying, but it was rapidly becoming apparent that I would soon be requiring the volume on the radio turned up to its maximum. I was increasingly worried that despite having the radio turned up to full volume, I would miss a vital message from Air Traffic Control, so presenting a risk to others as well as myself. Whichever way I argued to myself, my assessment was that the risk was getting too high. There was no way out.

I reluctantly quit flying.

Others must have gone down this path before me, but it did not make life any easier. In all other respects I was still fit to fly. In my work I was still surrounded by aircraft. Every day I was still working with engineers and pilots. But the uncertainties kept multiplying. Could I ever get back to flying. Even on the ground my future was uncertain. How long would I still be able to continue in my career of aeronautical engineering, where teamwork was everything?

There were ways to compensate. I could still write. I experimented with painting. My family was supportive, and we did many valuable things as a family, but there still seemed no way of properly compensating for the loss of an important part of my life.

Then came a ray of hope. A relative of a colleague of mine had suffered from a similar loss of hearing. She had been treated at the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles and treatment had resulted in a dramatic improvement in her hearing.
I arranged to travel to downtown Los Angeles and visited the Institute where I had still more hearing tests. At the Institute my consultant, Dr. James Sheehy said that there was a good chance that the condition could be rectified. The otosclerosis could be treated by removing the offending stapes bones in each ear and replacing them with metal prostheses. This stapedectomy operation had been pioneered by the House Institute and there was a high probability of success. There was a cautionary note, he added: some patients were prone to balance problems after the operation.
This latter part was not good news. Balance problems would be the death knell for flying if it happened to me. Still, this was the only long-term solution that presented itself. So I agreed to the proposed treatment. Dr Sheehy explained that the technique was still fairly recent. He would perform two separate operations, one on each ear. There would be a wait of a year before the second operation just to make sure that the first operation was a success.

An appointment was made for the first operation. My wife drove me to the hospital for Dr. Sheehy to operate on my left ear. I am not at ease in hospitals. To compound my discomfort this operation was to be carried out under local anesthetic. It was all rather unnerving as I was conscious throughout the procedure and aware of the surgeon’s progress during this delicate operation. My overwhelming worry, as I lay on the operating table, was the need not to sneeze at an inappropriate time during the delicate microsurgery.

The House Institute was host to a constant stream of doctors from all over the world, intent on observing how this new procedure was carried out. So the progress of the operation was monitored by TV cameras for the benefit of this captive audience. Dr. Sheehy was terribly cheerful throughout and kept up a running commentary for the benefit of the observers.

All apparently went well and I was kept in the hospital overnight as standard procedure. It was unusual, said Dr. Sheehy, for one’s balance to be a little adrift for a while after the operation. Sure enough, I had to move a bit carefully for a few days. Sudden movements caused strange effects to my vestibular system. But as soon as the post-operative swelling had gone down and the dressings were removed, with elation I noticed an improvement in my hearing.

Coming back from deafness was like coming back from a dark tunnel into the light. I could hear phones ringing, birds singing, and I could carry on a normal conversation once more. It was like being reborn.

As time went on, my hearing improved further in my left ear. It appeared as if things were going OK so far and I waited impatiently for the year to be up so that I could have the fading hearing in my right ear rectified.

The second operation was a mirror image of the first. Again after a few days there was a perceptible improvement in the hearing of my right ear. About a month after the operation I was checked out by Dr. Sheehy and his staff and given a clean bill of health. My hearing was back to normal.

By this time I was driving around California again, had started running to keep in shape and had encountered no balance problems. Life on the ground was fine again. But for me there was no more hurdle to cross. Could I still fly?

My first flight was as a passenger in a twin-engine turboprop. There were no problems and my balance seemed OK during gentle maneuvering. But there was no way on earth to duplicate the complex effects on my inner ear that aerobatics would impose, short of actually flying. So I had to bite the bullet and chose to fly the Great Lakes biplane, with an instructor in the second seat to take over just in case things should go drastically wrong.

It was a beautiful California day when at five thousand feet over the Pacific Ocean with the wind battering around the open cockpit, I banked the biplane in a series of clearing turns. Emotionally, I was not at all sure if I wanted to find out the answer. If my balance was affected, I would have to ground myself permanently. The Pacific turned below us as I circled, ostensibly checking for other aerial traffic but in fact trying to postpone the fateful moment. Everything was very clear. The sun reflected from the struts, sparkled from the windshield and shadows swung across the instrument panel.

Eventually I could not think of a reason to prolong the turn further and I took a deep breath, rolled into a steep bank, let the nose drop into a dive and pulled up into a loop, the first maneuver in my sequence of aerobatics.

Thirty minutes later we landed after thoroughly wringing out the Great Lakes and my vestibular system in a series of aerobatics which had included loops, rolls, stall turns and spins. As the propeller jerked to a halt I had a grin from ear to ear which needed no explanation. I was back in business.

After more than a year of an enforced stay on the ground, flying aerobatics in the Great Lakes Trainer proved that my balance was unaffected by the operations that had restored my hearing. I was cleared to fly again.

Later that week I flew again, solo this time, and got back into aerobatic practice after a few flights. Life was good. I was back to normal and flying was even sweeter after this enforced period on the ground.

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