The Problem with a Diagnosis

Owen and I both got some strange news this week. He’s had a couple of ear infections (or one that took a while to clear). Anyway, it turns out that the bacteria broke through his eardrum and now there’s fluid behind it. We have to wait to see if it clears on its own. If it doesn’t, we’re supposed to do hearing tests, etc.

This news was hard for me to hear for a number of reasons, but perhaps especially since yesterday, I’d been to the doctor and had (finally) been diagnosed with moderate hearing loss, not enough to qualify for a government-paid hearing aid, but enough, said the doctor, to benefit from one. I was surprised to hear that – not that I didn’t know I had hearing loss – that much was pretty obvious. Duncan gets frustrated with me all the time for pretending I heard something after I’ve already asked him to repeat it (I try only to ask once). I can’t hear crickets in the daytime. I can’t hear electronic beeps. According to the doctor, I can’t hear a pin drop. I’ve not tried yet, but I’ll take his word for it. I can’t hear students if they speak softly or if I’m not paying direct attention. I can’t always tell who spoke. It’s a bit stressful, I suppose, but I’ve managed (“quite well,” said the doctor). Um, yeah. So now I know that, officially, I have a problem, but that doesn’t make me hear any differently. On the contrary, I have been marvelling over how much I can hear. The car engine, the radio, birds singing, the rain, Owen’s sighs and cries, whispers, telephone conversations.

I asked the doctor how likely it was that I had passed along this “impairment” to my son – I got it from my mother, whose hearing loss is (and has long been) more severe than mine, but in the same pattern. My mother can’t hear the sibilant sounds (s, th, f – those whispers in everyday speech), so she pieces together words, supplying their missing pieces from her (sometimes quite inventive) mind.

Owen is certainly not noticeably hearing impaired. He’s learning to speak just fine and as far as I can tell he hears everything around him. But, of course, I’m so worried that he has what I have and that this ear infection will take more away from him. Because if he has the same hearing I have, part of me thinks, so what? – he’ll manage (quite) well. But I’d hate for him to struggle to hear any more than that. The doctor was gruff and brief and I didn’t think to ask the right questions (or any questions). I guess I’ll take Owen out of swimming (recommended last time he had an ear infection) and try to keep that ear dry. There’s a 90% chance this will resolve itself, he said – but I’d like that number a lot higher.

As we were leaving, the doctor got Owen to smile. And he says to me: “You know he has a little seventh nerve palsy.”

“What?” I said.

“A seventh nerve palsy. It’s a weak nerve on one side of the face.”

“Oh,” I said (thinking: we just called that a crooked smile. Did we need a diagnosis?)

“He won’t ever be a politician like Chr├ętien,” he said.

And we were off. I’m sorry. I’m sure he was trying to be helpful. But am I supposed to be worried about it? Owen’s smile has always been a little lopsided. I think it’s cute. My smile is a bit crooked too (though not as much as his). I worried a little that it would look strange when he got older, but it’s not that noticeable unless he really all-out grin or opens his mouth super-wide.

I googled it, of course, to be greeted with all kinds of frightening pictures. It can happen in infants, apparently, usually as a result of birth trauma. Owen’s birth wasn’t especially traumatic, but he did have the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and arm, so I suppose that could have affected something. And I did get an epidural – one of the other potential causes. I took him for an operation when he was 8 days old because he was tongue tied and it hurt me to breastfeed. Who knows.

Do you see what this diagnosis did? It took my adorable little boy and stamped him with a flaw. It turned his little crooked smile into a problem. It ratcheted up my guilt another notch. I needed to get this out of my system. I’ll file it away and ask Owen’s pediatrician about it when we visit in September. But I am a bit haunted by our trips to our doctors, who seem to have created conditions simply by naming them.