Loss of hearing, not loss of life: Living and nursing with a hearing loss

Jackie Shaw
Experienced nurse Jackie shares how she continued nursing after developing significant hearing loss.

Hearing Loss

My name is Jackie, I’m a nurse, and I have a significant hearing loss. Increasing hearing loss over several years affected my capacity to work, but it didn’t make me unable to work. This is how I dealt with it.

I am still working, although my current job is not in acute care — not because of my deafness, but because I retired from full-time work. I’m currently working on the phones at Nurse &Midwife Support, which I love. Talking on the phone all day may seem inconsistent with deafness, but I can attest that with modern hearing support, it is quite possible.

I’ve been working as a telephone counsellor for around ten years, and despite my hearing loss, I plan to continue for a little longer. I already had my first hearing aid when I started this job. I declared it in the interview. Fortunately, my employers realised that as long as I could sensibly manage the phones, there would be no impediment to my work. Some employers may not have such insight, so if you’re in a similar position, it’s important that you be prepared to advocate for yourself. Organisations such as The Deaf Society may help you understand your rights and prepare to state your case.

For me, the hearing loss started in about my mid to late 50’s. I was a NUM in a residential withdrawal facility and I noticed that my ears seemed blocked, as if I had blocked Eustachian tubes. Despite continual efforts to unblock them, nothing worked, and after a while everything sounded muffled.

The worst part was that I couldn’t hear the daily handovers or the staff meetings. Hospital meetings were also very difficult. My job required all of the above. I felt very frustrated.

My mother was deaf in old age. Fearing the worst, I visited an audiologist, who confirmed a drop in hearing acuity — more on one side. I tried a hearing aid and it made a big difference. I was still deaf but not as badly. I could attend meetings again, and particularly staff meetings. I could continue to work.

Since then, my hearing has gradually deteriorated further. When I retired from full time work I progressed to two hearing aids, government subsidised for a part pensioner. Over the last two years my other ear has suddenly plummeted in acuity. Now voices sound distorted. Increasing the volume in my hearing aids only increases the distortion.

Despite that, I can still work. While ambient sound is different, it is still sound. With the help of an electronic amplifier I bought that feeds sound to my hearing aids, I can still attend PD sessions and conferences. I can still listen to our callers on the phones and communicate with my team of wonderful nurse counsellors. I feel it’s important not to retreat from work and life because you can’t hear. Untreated hearing loss has been associated with dementia and cognitive decline, because social isolation means many of our neural networks are neglected. If you’re noticing signs of deafness, get help and treatment! It will improve more than just your hearing.

Don’t be afraid to explain your situation to your coworkers. I never had a problem with telling staff and colleagues that I was deaf, and asking them to repeat if necessary, as I figured if I didn’t tell them about a health condition I was dealing with they would find it more frustrating than I did.

I have not felt any stigma. As a health worker, it’s important to be clear that there is no shame in a health condition. Especially if it is being treated! I would advise anyone in our profession to be upfront about hearing loss. We are an aging population and more and more nurses will be in the same situation. Indeed, a few of my colleagues already are. We can all benefit from preparing contingency plans for the possibility of further deterioration: I have informed our Systems Manager of my condition and we are exploring the possibility of phone sound enhancement if things get worse.

If it comes to it, I will explore a Cochlear implant if necessary — the technology is improving each year and Government support is available now — but I’m not at that point yet, and may not reach it.

Of course, I haven’t talked of the effect on my private life, but I’m lucky to have a supportive partner, and I still go to the theatre monthly. I grasp about three-quarters of the dialogue unless it’s well ‘miked’ but that’s better than none! Thanks to supportive workplace policies (which should be in place everywhere, under disability laws,) and a good audiologist, I can say that one can live and thrive with a hearing loss. 

Finally, I want to suggest that it’s important to get a diagnosis for your hearing loss. See your GP and ask for a referral to an audiologist, or choose one on a trusted recommendation. There may be a cost for both the visits but it’s worth budgeting for it. There is a huge audiology industry, all of whom are eager to help you (and take your hard-earned money) so do some research and find an audiologist in your area who provides free initial hearing assessments.

 Maybe start with Health Direct’s information about Hearing tests.

There are several types of hearing loss, not all permanent, and sometimes it may be possible to stop further deterioration. Try not to pretend it’s not happening: your family and friends will be as aware as you are, maybe more aware, that your hearing is deteriorating — note the raised TV volume, the mistaken words, the partly missed conversations. You may be ‘filling in the gaps’ and not even realise it.

You will be conscious of the struggle you have to keep up with conversations, and the tendency to sit back and just listen hard — or to stop listening at all.

If you or someone close to you has a hearing problem there may be associated mental health problems, like anxiety or depression. If that sounds familiar, consider reaching out to us on 1800 667 877 or online — or see your GP.

Remember: you are a valuable, skilled and knowledgeable nurse, who has much to offer. Do not allow yourself to be marginalised by poor hearing. All workplaces have an obligation to support you and you have the right to seek help. Often the only barriers are inside us.

Thank you for reading my story, I hope it is useful .

If you’re experiencing hearing loss and want to chat about it, Nurse & Midwife Support is here for you 24/7 on 1800 667 877 or by email.