This morning I visited this fine institution. It is named after London’s most famous Lord Mayor, Richard (commonly “Dick”) Whittington, who is associated with North London. You might be able to see the black cat perched above the entrance. This refers to the legend that Whittington was saved from failure and poverty by hiring out his cat, a formidable mouse and rat catcher, to clear warehouses of vermin. The story is probably false but Londoners are very fond of Dick Whittington and his cat and representations of the doughty feline are found in many places.
I refer to the Whittington as a fine institution because that is what it is for me: it is the Whittington’s Audiology Department that looks after my hearing, providing me with hearing aids and after-care for them. It was for such purposes that I went there today.
On October 5th, I recounted how I had been to the Whittington for a hearing test (see Press the button where you hear a tone), and had been promised new, more modern, hearing aids. Today was the day for going to collect them.
When I was given the first set of hearing aids, these were still considered pretty advanced. Gone were the days when wearing hearing aids meant clipping a device the size of a tobacco tin to the front of your jacket: now was the era of the digital hearing aid so small that people often failed to notice you were wearing one.
The main disadvantage of what we must now consider the older generation of hearing aids was that they needed an insert to fit inside the ear. This was tailored to your ears and was therefore not uncomfortable but it did give you a “fingers-in-the-ears” sensation that most people find unpleasant. (It also meant you couldn’t scratch an itchy ear without taking out the hearing aid!) You will see a picture of these hearing aids in the above mentioned post.
Compare them with the set I was given today!
When I first saw them, I assumed I was being shown just the top part, containing the electronics and the microphone, and that there would be something else on the end of the threadlike tube. I was mistaken: this is the complete thing!
Called “thin-tube hearing aids” because the sound-carrying tube is thinner than in previous models, all you have in your ear is the tiny pyramid-shaped nodule on the end of the tube. No ear-blocking insert, no “fingers-in-the-ears” sensation! (And you can scratch an itchy ear!)
That is not all that is remarkable about these aids. I was warned that until my brain got used to the different audio quality, they would sound “tinny”. That is, it’s as though you are listening to sound reflected from a tin box. The reason is that these aids have better coverage of the higher frequencies than the old ones and because my brain is not yet used to this fuller coverage, it interprets it as though the sound is distorted. Even so, I can already hear things that I didn’t hear before – or perhaps didn’t notice because they were not reproduced loudly enough.
Of course, nothing is perfect and I have already found one disadvantage with these hearing aids: the tube fits into to top part containing the microphone by being screwed into it. This means that you cannot rotate the microphone relative to the tube and to your head. With the old aids, the soft plastic tube simply pushed onto a harder tube and therefore could easily be rotated. Why does this matter? Because sometimes, the hearing aid produces feedback, an annoying whine or screech. If you can rotate the microphone, you can often find a position where feedback is minimized. If I get feedback with the new aids, I am stuck with it as it is impossible to rotate the microphone.
Unlike the old aids, too, these have a volume control. I can increase or decrease the volume at will. Does that sound like a gift for an eavesdropper? Alas, no. It does not permit me to hear distant conversations or know what is being said behind closed doors. The amount of increase and decrease is very small. It might come in useful when talking to someone who speaks very very softly. Otherwise, as the aids are programmed for my hearing, I will leave them on the default setting.
The title is a reference to this morning’s session. With the new aids in place, the specialist banged a pair of scissors on the desk and asked if the sound was “too loud”, i.e. painfully loud. It wasn’t. Then he told me to close my eyes while he retired to the other end of the room and there first got me to indicate where his voice seemed to be coming from (to check that the stereo balance was right) and then asked me several questions, dropping his voice successively to see how I was managing with quieter sounds. All was satisfactory.
On the way home, I caught myself a couple of times thinking I had forgotten to put on my hearing aids. This is because the new ones are so light that I am barely aware of them. Hearing sound directly through unblocked ears as well as hearing it through the electronics system does make a big difference. If things really don’t work out I can revert to the old aids as I have been allowed to keep them but as of this writing, I doubt whether I shall find that necessary.
I cannot resist pointing out that the Whittington is a hospital run by the National Health Service (NHS). There is plenty wrong with the NHS, mainly because of soaring costs and government reluctance to fund it adequately, despite repeated promises to do so, but when it works, it is a marvel. I have received treatment that could not be bettered anywhere, provided by dedicated doctors and nurses with a genuine compassion and desire to restore me to health.