I saw my first real cochlear implant the other day, which may seem odd since I’m the editor of a magazine devoted to hearing products—but it’s true. Well, not entirely. Of course, I’ve seen plenty of photographs of them in press materials and in booth displays at the hearing industry trade shows I’ve attended in the year that I’ve had this job. There was even an episode of a house hunting program on a homes and gardens television network that my wife Susan and I were watching a few months ago, and when one of the prospective buyers turned the side of his head to the camera and I saw the transmitter behind his ear, I pointed at the TV screen in surprise and excitedly said to her: “That’s a cochlear implant!”

I’m not ashamed to say that this time last year, I might not have known that.

And so it was that I was in the checkout line at a home improvement store recently and the gentleman in front of me turned to look over his shoulder at something behind me; when he did, I saw his transmitter and I pointed to it and yelled, “That’s a cochlear implant!”

No, I didn’t. I’m not entirely tactless. I was, however, entirely excited at the real-world encounter. And though I played it cool on the outside, on the inside I was trying to think of what I might possibly say that wouldn’t either embarrass or insult the guy.

“Hi. I work for a magazine that covers hearing products. I notice you have a cochlear implant.” No, that wasn’t going to work. I could just picture him responding with “And I notice you’re really bothering me.” So I mulled over: “Excuse me, sir, if I’m not disturbing you, would you mind if I ask you about your cochlear implant?” A slight improvement, but again I could imagine him saying, “Ask as long as you don’t mind that I ask you to leave me alone.” Last but not least, I considered: “Cochlear implant, huh? How’s that working out for you?” Good grief, no.

About a minute later, he concluded his transaction and headed toward the exit with his purchases, mercifully preventing me from inserting my foot into my mouth. Certainly I was sincerely interested in a first-person account of such a unique and technologically advanced device—and who knows: perhaps if I’d dared to say something to him appropriate or not very, he would have received my curiosity politely and responded positively. I’ll never know.

I do know that as he passed another patron coming inside, that person caught sight of the device and executed an entirely unrestrained double-take and stopped-in-his-tracks stare that a year ago in my lack of familiarity with the device, I’m ashamed to say I might have done, too…though I’m pretty sure without such a lack of subtlety and consideration. As the cashier rang up my items, I didn’t second guess myself when the double-taker moved passed me and I said, “In case you’re curious, that device that man was wearing was part of a cochlear implant.”

“A hearing aid?” he asked. “I’ve seen much smaller ones than that!”

“No, it’s not just a hearing aid. Hearing aids amplify sounds that can be detected by damaged ears. Cochlear implants are for people who are deaf or severely hard-of-hearing.”

The man nodded, though I’m not quite sure he grasped what I was saying. I could certainly relate. I may not have come a long way this past year, but at least enough to know the difference.

Karl Strom
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