My healthy 11-year-old daughter woke up deaf - and no one can tell me why

Photo: Megan's daughter was diagnosed sudden sensorineural hearing loss. iStock
Photo: Megan's daughter was diagnosed sudden sensorineural hearing loss. iStock 

She wakes, but something isn't right.

She takes the morning in, counting as she goes. Sunlight fights a battle with the dark curtains. The taste of morning breath. The hazy scent of pancakes travels through the hallway and into the cracks of doors. Warm blankets back, feet touch the carpet.

There's one missing.

She calls out. A mass of liquid forces itself out of her mouth.

I arrive, help her lay back down. Clean up.

It's then that she whispers, "I can't hear", She points to her right ear.

*

The question that, since then, has been dolled out more than any other – and there have been many – is, "What's her childhood development been like?"

I answer it like this: she's the healthiest person I've ever known.

"Medical history?" they push. Well, there's almost none. Two, maybe three, ear infections. Two, maybe three, gastros. A few colds, discarded within days. Countless grazes and bruises on adventurous legs.

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They shrug at me as I put to them my own question: How can a perfectly healthy 11-year-old wake one morning half deaf?

*

There's a global pandemic in full force, so the diagnosis is delivered over video.

The initial equation was a blocked ear plus nausea, equalling an ear infection. But it's been six weeks and three doctors' appointments since she woke without hearing, and there's no improvement. I take her for a hearing test, and then we wait for what we think is going to be a plan for getting her hearing back; medication or grommets, perhaps.

She and I huddle in my office, surrounded by words that usually motivate me – 'You got this' – and watch the specialist. We're unsure whether the woman is always this harsh, or whether her touch is lost through this medium, but either way the things she's saying don't make sense.

There are words like 'hearing aids' and 'cochlear implant' spraying out of my computer's speakers and landing in my office, as my head wonders at the need for such things to treat a temporary problem.

And then.

"Hang on, hang on," I interrupt, and she does after a delay of my words reaching her speaker. "Are you suggesting that this is – I mean, is it – permanent?"

She rolls her eyes. Or is the video distorted? "Yes. It's sudden sensorineural hearing loss. It's permanent. And it's severe to profound. Look." 

She holds the hearing test results – which we hadn't yet seen – up to the camera. One line, the results from my daughter's left ear, sits perkily near the top like an eager student in the front row; the other line, her right ear, is very close to the bottom.

When she sees our faces she says to my child in a dismissive tone, 'You look worried. Don't be worried. You'll be right. Now, as I was saying …' and she launches into words like 'blood tests' and 'MRI'.

We hang up as quickly as we can.

I pull my child onto me.

*

After all the tests, the answer to my one question – how can a perfectly healthy 11-year-old wake one morning, suddenly half deaf? – is still a series of shrugs.

It's likely we'll never have an answer.

We turn our attention to helping her. We go to Hearing Australia, and a paediatric audiologist takes a mould of her ear and orders in a hearing aid.

But there's a global pandemic in full force, so each appointment is cut short due to time limits on face-to-face contact, and the rest of the details are delivered over the phone. It's back in my office – 'You got this' – that we discuss hearing aid models and colours, and learn the ways in which they may or may not help.

She first shows off her hearing aid to her classmates on a video chat – during remote learning – and adjusts to the new gadget at home. By the time she gets back to school she's so used to it that the different sounds aren't too hard to adjust to.

One day she comes home declaring the good part of a hearing loss. "Mum", she says, grinning. "When class gets boring I turn off my hearing aid and lean on my good ear. I don't have to hear a thing!"

It's been a challenging time, but she's my constant reminder that there is a little light to be found in any situation.