Update: Ear Surgery

August 6, 2022
Detail of audiology test
How exhilarating is the sound of your fingers dragging across your bed sheets?
How overpowering is the sound of the fan cooling your bedroom in the summer?
How delightful is the sound of the car passing you on your right?

As I mentioned in a recent post, earlier this year my right ear began to get severely fatigued after band practices. The symptoms included ear pressure, hearing diminishment, and headaches. Wearing ear protection didn't help. It became disorienting and stressful for me, which led me to the Mayo Clinic's Ear, Nose, and Throat department in Rochester, Minnesota. But there's a bigger picture.

Childhood History

As a young child I was prone to ear infections, and I had to have a few ear tubes installed. This resulted in deformations of the bones of my right middle ear. If you're not familiar, the three bones in your middle ear (the "ossicles") conduct sound from your eardrum into your cochlea and auditory nerve. When the bones are deformed, they don't conduct sound as well. That's how I ended up with poor hearing in my right ear.

I had two surgeries as a child to try to improve the sound conduction in my middle ear, but neither were successful. For the past 25 years I've learned to live with this. In fact, it's all I've ever really known, so I haven't known what I've been missing. Fortunately, my left ear has always had great hearing.

Here are the results of an audiology test I took at the Mayo Clinic this spring. You can see the left ear (the blue line) hears great while the right ear (the red line) has "moderately severe" hearing loss.

Results of audiology test
Results of my audiology test.

The Doctor's Opinion

At Mayo they gave me an audiology test and took a CT scan of my right ear. I then met with Dr. Colin Driscoll, a surgeon who specializes in middle ear hearing loss. Here's what he told me:

Image of my eardrum with wire visible
Image of my eardrum with the wire visible.

Dr. Driscoll said all signs indicate that a surgery on my middle ear could make a big difference in my hearing. Interestingly, he pointed out that there was already a piece of wire in my ear from the last surgery when I was a child. He took a picture of it. I guess my ossicles were so deformed that the previous surgeon attempted to bypass them by running a wire directly from my eardrum to the base of the inner ear, or something like that.

Surgery Day

I went in for surgery on Thursday, July 28. Technically, the procedure was called a "tympanoplasty" or "stapedectomy". I was very anxious about it. While the prospects looked good, there were still some risks. There was the possibility of making my hearing worse, making my right ear deaf, or even reducing my sense of smell or impairing my facial movements. I went for it anyway. I was hopeful that not only would my hearing improve but so would the troubling fatigue issues I experienced earlier in the year.

All the staff at Mayo were incredible. They put me at ease, and every step of the way they communicated clearly what was going to happen. I laid on the medical bed as they wheeled me into the operating room. From my vantage point staring up at the ceiling I caught glimpses of the bright room with the sophisticated medical equipment, and I was overcome with gratitude for the advancements in technology and medicine in my lifetime. I was relieved to finally see Dr. Driscoll by my side. He said, "It's good to see you, Jason! I'm going to do my best not to make things worse. I'm going to try to make them better!" He spoke to the heart of what I feared, and it comforted me. Within a couple minutes I was asleep from the anesthesia.

A couple hours later I slowly woke up. Kallie was there. I was having a long personal conversation with the nurse, most of which I don't remember. I was sipping on a cup of ice water and eating gold fish crackers. Dr. Driscoll came in and said the surgery went exactly as planned. They freed up one of my ossicles from the nearby structural bone. In addition, they grafted a piece of cartilage between my eardrum and the metal wire.

Picture of me in hospital immediately after surgery
Waking up in the hospital after surgery with a new ear and a new hairdo.

The fog of anesthesia was lifting after about 30 minutes, so it was time to go home. I carefully moved into a wheelchair, and a nurse wheeled me down to the entrance of the hospital where Kallie had brought the car. I was still very woozy as Kallie drove us the hour home. Needless to say, my right ear felt strange, congested and gelatinous. I could hear all sorts of clicking, popping, and gushing inside my head. It was unnerving but not surprising. When I talked to Kallie I could hear my voice booming inside my head, like when I have a bad cold.

A New Experience

When we got home I sat down in bed for a while to rest. Overall, I felt pretty good. The wooziness went away quickly. I was mentally pretty sharp, and, despite the discomfort in my ear, I wasn't experiencing much pain at all.

Bed with sheets

Then I noticed something strange. Unthinkingly I drew my right hand across the bed sheets, an action which I must have done thousands of times before.

But this time I heard the sound of my fingers moving across the sheets in my right ear. I was stunned.

To double check what I heard, I cocked my right ear toward my sheets and scratched them with my fingernails. I heard the scratching loud and clear. I can't express how exhilarated I was to be hearing such a simple sound.

You have to understand that, while I've always been able to hear a little bit out of my right ear, I rarely perceived that sounds were emanating from my right side. My left ear has been so dominant that I've generally perceived most things as coming from my left side, even if they're actually coming from my right. So this experience of perceiving sound as emanating from my right is new.

The doctor told me my hearing would likely get worse before it gets better because of all the packing material they put on the eardrum to protect it while it heals. And yet, just a couple hours after the surgery I was already hearing more out of my right ear than ever before in my life. It was emotional. I got choked up.

More New Experiences

Going Forward

My ear still has a lot of healing to do. In two weeks I'll go back to the doctor so he can remove some of the packing material that's supporting the eardrum. Apparently this packing material is muffling a lot of the sound I'm hearing right now. In particular, I've noticed that I'm hearing a lot of low end and midrange tones in my right ear but not much high end at all. I'm hoping this is due to the packing material, like how a towel on a snare drum dampens the highs.

In three months I'll go back to get an audiology test to see how much my hearing has actually improved. The general guidance is that it'll take three to six months before my right ear is at "peak hearing".

Honestly, I'm anxious about the recovery process. The initial results have felt too good to be true, so I'm fearful that somehow my hearing has already plateaued or will even get worse. Or that I'll never get back any high end frequencies in my right ear which would undermine how effective the hearing gains have been. The science suggests that my hearing will only improve from here, so these fears are most likely irrational. I'll post updates on my ears in the coming weeks.


What a touching description of your ordeal. I remember your ear problems as a child and can just imagine your elation now. Hope your hearing continues to improve and you’ll be back with the band again

[ Reply to June Palmer ]

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