“I simply could not function without Rom"
Posted by Matt Sadler
What is it like to lose your hearing if you’re a professional musician?
Chris Whitelaw had been a professional musician for 25 years when he experienced a sudden decline in his hearing. As a classically trained organist, he spent much of that time working as a commercial musician in studios or doing live work in very noisy environments.
His hearing loss began with him losing the high frequencies but over the years it has progressed to the point where he now relies completely on lipreading.
Here, Chris describes in his own words how his hearing loss impacted his life and career, and how a very clever hearing dog has helped him – particularly now during the Coronavirus lockdown.
“For a musician to lose their hearing is a huge life-changing event. It led to clinical depression, social isolation, and a feeling that I was on a very slippery downward slope. It’s the isolation that I find the hardest to deal with.
“I suppose I was first made aware of a change in my hearing in my late 30s. I didn’t notice it myself, but my family would complain I had the TV up too loud and I’d mishear what people were saying.
“I was encouraged by my wife to seek an audiologist’s opinion. Eventually I was offered hearing aids and did give them a go, however I have the sort of hearing loss that is difficult to help with hearing aids. Also, I tend to suffer from ear infections so no matter what type of ear moulds I tried, I felt better without them. I’m happier lipreading. It was a skill I’d already mastered quite well – most musicians working in studios lipread.
“The thought of wearing hearing aids didn’t bother me, however my then employer hated them and made constant complaints about them, especially if they whistled.
“It took a while for me to come to terms with life as a deaf musician and I couldn’t have done that without professional psychiatric help, my amazing family, and of course my hearing dogs.
“My first hearing dog Gemma gave me my life back, and my second - Rom - has continued to do so. As well as alerting me to important sounds like the smoke alarm, the emotional support they’ve given me is beyond words. I lost Gemma very suddenly and the gap before I got Rom was like going deaf all over again.
“I simply could not function without Rom. While I was still working Rom would come with me. Normally he is very well-behaved, but one day he refused to get into the lift at work. Despite my best efforts, coaxing and offering treats, he just wouldn’t budge. I stepped into the lift myself and tried calling him in after me, but he became very agitated and upset so I gave up and took the stairs.
“Ten minutes later, when we arrived at my floor, I found out the next person to use the lift was now trapped inside as it had broken down between floors. What I didn’t know at the time was that the lift was emitting a very high-pitched noise. It had clearly worried Rom as he knew it wasn’t normal for the lift to make that sort of sound.
“The Coronavirus lockdown would be unthinkable without Rom. I’m in the ‘high risk’ group so I’ve had to completely isolate at home and remain there until at least mid-July.
“What has been noticeable is Rom’s empathy with my emotional state. I was due to have a total knee replacement in May which is now postponed indefinitely. This has made me feel pretty low from time to time and Rom always knows when I’m feeling down. At such times he won’t leave my side and ensures that he sits, lies or sleeps in physical contact with me.
“My family have made sure Rom has lots of long walks in the countryside that surrounds us here. I think that, important as alerting to sounds is for a deaf person, a hearing dog gives so much more. Rom provides a focus and gives me a need to care for him and to move around as much as I’m able.
“My own retirement is very different to the music-filled one I’d planned for myself. But although I can no longer enjoy concerts or live performances, amazingly I learned that I can still hear music in my head, especially when reading from a score. It means I can still compose, and I can still play the organ even though I can’t hear all the notes.
“If I could go back and do anything differently it would be to wear ear protection. The protection available is very sophisticated now and protects your hearing without compromising on the quality of the music – and it’s the only way to prevent noise induced hearing loss.
“Had it been the norm to use ear defenders or ear plugs, I would certainly have done so, it just wasn’t considered necessary back then. I didn’t realise the damage that I was doing to my hearing or the consequences.
“My advice to other musicians and performers is to heed the warning signs, and if your ears hiss after a performance, you’re in danger.”
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