From the Archives: Wired’s Bionic Quest for Boléro

From the Archives: Wired’s Bionic Quest for Boléro

I sat in my living room alone, listening. Bolero starts simply enough, a single flute accompanied by a snare drum: da-da-da-dum, da-da-da-dum, dum-dum, da-da-da-dum. The same musical clause repeats 17 more times, each cycle adding instruments, growing louder and more insistent, until the entire orchestra roars in an overpowering finale of rhythm and sound. Musically, it was perfect for my ear. It had a structure that I could easily grasp and enough variation to hold my interest.

It took a lot to hold my interest; I was nearly deaf at the time. In 1964, my mother contracted rubella while pregnant with me. Hearing aids allowed me to understand speech well enough, but most music was lost on me. Boléro was one of the few pieces I actually enjoyed. A few years later, I bought the CD and played it so much it eventually grew pitted and scratched. It became my touchstone. Every time I tried out a new hearing aid, I’d check to see if Boléro sounded OK. If it didn’t, the hearing aid went back.

And then, on July 7, 2001, at 10:30 am, I lost my ability to hear Boléro – and everything else. While I was waiting to pick up a rental car in Reno, I suddenly thought the battery in my hearing aid had died. I replaced it. No luck. I switched hearing aids. Nothing.

I got into my rental car and drove to the nearest emergency room. For reasons that are still unknown, my only functioning ear had suffered “sudden-onset deafness.” I was reeling, trying to navigate in a world where the volume had been turned down to zero.

But there was a solution, a surgeon at Stanford Hospital told me a week later, speaking slowly so I could read his lips. I could have a computer surgically installed in my skull. A cochlear implant, as it is known, would trigger my auditory nerves with 16 electrodes that snaked inside my inner ear. It seemed drastic, and the $US50,000 price tag was a dozen times more expensive than a high-end hearing aid. I went home and cried. Then I said yes.

It gets better. I recommend you read the rest.
[Wired, Photos: CT scan: Valley Radiology; Matt Hoyle]