A New World of Sound: Sandi’s Cochlear Implant Story

Going through life with hearing loss is hard. But sometimes modern medicine can offer amazing solutions.

Consider what Sandi Wayman, 47, of Roseburg, Oregon, faced. As a young child, she was often in trouble for not listening or responding to the adults in her life. When she was three years old, Sandi's grandmother noticed her reading lips and mimicking other people's lip shapes. A hearing test revealed the reason for her inattention: She had severe-profound hearing loss in both ears.

A childhood with hearing loss

It’s unknown if Sandi was born with hearing loss or whether ear infections during infancy were the cause. At the age three, she was fitted with her first pair of hearing aids. She walked outside with her “new ears on,” looked up at the sky, and asked, “What’s that sound?” For the first time, she was hearing the wind blowing through the trees.

Sandi’s early years in school were tough. She recalls how she “couldn’t comprehend things as fast as other kids could.” In her small elementary school, she was the only student who wore hearing aids. She felt embarrassed by her hearing aids and often wore her hair down to hide them.

Sandi Wayman as a little girl

Sandi Wayman was a precocious young girl who was fitted with her first pair of hearing aids at the age of 3.

Her younger sister helped her through this time. “Although she was two years younger than me, she served as my ears,” said Sandi. “She would often repeat things for me.” Unfortunately, her fellow students were not all as compassionate. Sandi has a vivid memory from this time of a boy saying, "Ew, who would ever want to kiss or marry you?!" while pointing at her hearing aids.

Sandi’s self-esteem took a bad hit during her school days, but what saved her was sports. In 4th grade, her mom encouraged her to play volleyball and basketball, something she was initially reluctant to try. “To this day, I am so very thankful she did,” said Sandi. “Sports gave me confidence, and it helped me make some good friends along the way.” She went on to play sports in college and remarked, “I was pretty good too!” Her motto soon became, “Being deaf isn’t a disability but a different ability.’”

Navigating adulthood with hearing loss

Sandi carried the emotional scars of her childhood years into early adulthood. She told HearingTracker, “I used to think nobody would love someone who couldn’t hear, but I was wrong! Everything worked out” on that front, she said.

She went on to meet a supportive spouse and have two children: a son, and a daughter who are now 23 and 20, respectively. She adds, “I also used to worry that I’d miss out a lot on my kids’ things or I’d embarrass them, but I don’t believe I have. They haven’t told me otherwise!”

Through volunteering at her kids’ kindergarten, Sandi developed a love of working with children. She pursued a career in teaching and reflects, “It’s kind of ironic that I'm a teacher now, and I'm teaching these things that I once had a hard time with,” she says.

She thoroughly enjoys interacting with young children and sees teaching as more than explaining academics. It’s also an opportunity to teach life skills, integrity, and kindness. “It's a wonderful feeling knowing I could make a positive difference to a child’s life,” she explains.

Making a big decision about her hearing loss

Though things were going well personally and professionally, Sandi’s hearing continued to decline during her 30s. At a routine hearing check-up, her audiologist informed her she would be a good candidate for a cochlear implant (CI). A CI is a small electronic device that electrically stimulates the cochlear nerve, which plays a vital role in hearing. The implant has external and internal parts; the latter is implanted during surgery. Concerned by the prospect of invasive surgery and the loss of her residual hearing that the procedure would cause, Sandi didn’t consider this option.

Over time, the idea of a CI started to pique her curiosity. Could it make a significant difference?

Two years later, she consulted with an audiologist to find out more about getting an implant. She aired her concerns and worries. After some deliberation, felt confident that getting a CI was the right choice for her. Sandi knew her hearing was likely to continue to decline, and in turn, hearing aids would become less effective. At this point, she thought, “What do I have to lose?” She wanted to do what she could to secure and possibly improve her quality of life.

The gift of hearing

At the age of 40, Sandi underwent implant surgery and received one of approximately 118,100 CIs implanted in adults in the US. She remarks, “I like to joke that it’s my ‘golden ear,’ because we calculated that it cost almost $100,000! Luckily, my insurance kicked in, and I only had to pay the deductible, which was doable, thank goodness!”

Sandi gets cochlear implant surgery

Sandi recovering from her cochlear implant surgery

Sandi didn’t experience anything new in terms of hearing right after her surgery. But that’s typical. Her activation day — the day when the audiologist turns on and programs the settings for a CI — arrived four weeks following her surgery. She remembers this day as “weird but exciting.”

The first sound Sandi recalls hearing through her CI was the “click-click” of the car’s turn signal on her journey home after activation. “I had no clue what it was, and it took my hubs a few minutes to figure it out too, since it is a sound he always hears.” In the days that followed, she began to hear voices, including her own, which “sounded like a tinny Mickey Mouse!” she recalls.

Through listening to music and putting herself in crowded places, Sandi trained her brain to make sense of the new sounds from her CI. It took a year of rehabilitation for her to get to the point where she is today. She says, “It was hard and overwhelming at times, but it worked out because now I have 99% word recognition, and this is with background noise!”

One of the things Sandi loves about her CI is that it enables her to hear music better. Her CI package came with a phone clip, which streams music directly into her sound processor via Bluetooth. She says, “Nobody else can hear it, just me. And I can hear it so clearly! The lyrics to songs are not how I used to sing them pre-CI — I think the artists just got them wrong,” she jokes.

Life with cochlear implants

Living with a CI isn’t always smooth sailing, Sandi admits. “I still have days where I get overstimulated and have to take my ‘ears’ off for a while because it is exhausting. But I would take this any day versus not being able to hear,” Sandi told HearingTracker.

Sandi's cochlear implant X-ray

Sandi's cochlear implant X-ray.

Sandi considers her cochlear implant journey as one of the best decisions she’s ever made.

“Sure, it was scary as heck, but I can now hear birds singing, rain falling on the windshield, my dog’s toenails clicking on the hardwood floors, my cat’s funny sneezes, and even hummingbird wings flapping,” she says. “It is amazing hearing these sounds that most people take for granted. I love it all!” That’s a resounding recommendation and reveals the truly transformative impact these devices can have on a person’s quality of life.