“Did I hear that right?” I thought.
I spoke, “What do you mean?”
“Well,” he began fiddling with the papers, “it seems like the hair cells in your left ear must have deteriorated, resulting in significant sensorineural hearing damage.”
I had expected to lose some hearing once I was wrinkly and grey, not when I was young and just starting my career. What would this mean for me going forward in medicine, or even as a person? What it would be like to use hearing aids hadn’t made it on my list of things I wonder about.
“I haven’t noticed anything though,” I countered.
“You don’t have to have,” he replied. “Your functional ear hears just fine, and unless you isolate the deficient ear, your brain won’t notice the loss.”
I was blown away. Can we repeat the test?” I asked. “I know I passed one of these a couple years ago.” “Sure,” the physician replied. The technician brought me to the booth again.
I sat down, determined the hear so much as an atom whizzing by my left ear.
The test came and went, and I had to admit to myself, I certainly noticed hearing less sounds in my left ear than my right ear. There was no mistaking it.
The physician came by one last time, to try to reassure me. He said the results would go up the chain and sometime next month I would get called to set up an appointment with a regional hearing center that could better determine the etiology of my hearing loss, and if any treatment or other steps were needed. I left in a daze, mumbled a greeting to someone else from my platoon the previous summer, also there for an annual physical. I walked to the bus stop, climbed aboard, and folded myself into an open seat, starting to mull the possible causes of this failed audiology exam. I thought about everything. I knew it probably wasn’t a brain lesion. And I knew it probably wasn’t some bug or wax in my ear. The most likely case was sensorineural damage to the hair cells. I could’ve handled this when I was 65, I thought. But now? What will this mean for my career as a physician? What will this mean for me staying in the Army? I didn’t have any clarity as these thoughts whirled about. The only thing I knew was a stomach-dropping, shoulder-slumping dread at the possible loss of a vocation I had come to love and anticipate. Not to mention how this could change my daily life – I still didn’t know what was going on with this left ear!
During the bus ride back, I was praying and thought of passages like James 1:2-4 that describe how beneficial trials are for our maturation. But in this moment, I admitted to God, “Jesus, I don’t want to go through this – potentially having hearing-loss. I just want this to be over.” I became increasingly weighed down at the dour prospects for my future vocation and the health of my body. My head felt heavy and my chest too small to draw a deep breath. Once the bus got back to Center City, I trudged home, desperately hoping that somehow this turn-of-events would be quickly reversed.
No one was home. Still lacking clarity about what to do next, I texted some family members, asking for prayer. I called my parents’ house, and my Dad picked up. I told him what had happened, and he wasn’t sure what to make of it. He thought perhaps there was some equipment malfunction, and it was an error. He said he was once denied life insurance for failing a blood test that detected nicotine, even though he had never smoked, and it took a while before the insurance company would accept a new test result. I responded that an equipment error was unlikely – this center tested thousands of reservists over the year, like my buddy from my platoon, so any malfunctioning equipment wouldn’t go unnoticed for long. Besides that I honestly had noticed a hearing-loss in my left ear the second time taking the test. It seemed final.
While talking with my Dad, I saw my journal entry from the morning. “Lord, how may I trust You fully in the direction of my training?” I guess this was an area to trust Him – not knowing if this meant my future as a physician in the Army would change. My Dad and I prayed for my trust in God to increase, we hung up, and I remembered I still had my ticket to the Phillies game that night. If there was any night a win would’ve lifted my spirits, it was tonight, against the Yankees. Instead of winning, Jake Arrieta got pounded and they lost 6-2. Eghh, what a downer.
I woke up the next morning and still couldn’t see a bigger picture of this could all work out. I knew there were people who lived normal lives with hearing aids, but I couldn’t think of any Army physicians who had hearing aids. That morning I asked God for one of my college friends to give me a call – it was more than I could bear to reach out blindly to friends for encouragement, but I knew I needed some. I remembered I was scheduled to shadow a pediatrician at Esperanza Health Center in Kensington, got myself together, and hopped on the train to shadow for the day.
I got there as the staff was conducting their morning meeting. I sat down next to the pediatrician I was shadowing. He was bright and cheerful. I could feel the discouragement reverberating out from my bones, but it didn’t seem to dampen his spirit as we briefly caught up after the meeting before we started seeing patients. He could tell something was up, and I hesitated, barely able to hold it all together. I pieced together a partial sentence, “I had this hearing test yesterday…for annual physical….and, failed it, they’re not sure why, but it sounds like I have sensorineural hearing loss in my left ear. I’ll go to a regional specialist next month to figure out why.” The finality of this setback hung over me, and it was daunting to share openly how disheartened I was from it. There was silence for a few moments, as I stared at my knees and blinked back tears.
“Can I pray for your hearing?” he offered.
I looked up. “Sure.”
He wheeled his chair next to mine, and prayed, “Lord, nothing is too hard for You. We ask You to restore Ben’s hearing in his left ear, so that when he goes to the specialist next month, they would say, ‘Why are you here, your ears are normal!’ We pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.”
I sat there another moment, blinking back tears, grateful for the boldness of his prayer, and a little less afraid of what might be ahead for my health and future career.
We spent the rest of the day seeing newborn infants, a toddler with an acute infection, teenagers with behavioral issues, children needing school physicals – the full breadth of primary care. I loved it. After the last patient, he took an otoscope to look inside my ear canal and tympanic membrane for good measure, to look for fluid or anything else that could account for the hearing loss. He didn’t see anything, but promised to continue praying, and I promised to update him with any developments.
I hopped on the train home, and saw text messages from my brothers, who were praying for my hearing to be healed and restored. As I was exiting the train, I received an incoming call from a friend from college. We caught up on what was new in the last few months, and as the conversation was winding down, he said, “Okay, good catching up – the Lord had brought you up in my prayers this morning, so I wanted to give you a call and see how you were doing.” I remembered my prayer from the morning for a friend from college to give me a call. And God had answered it! Yet… it was difficult to share out-of-the-blue this setback and how much it had disheartened me. But I did. And for the second time that day, someone had the courage to pray boldly for me when I didn’t have the courage to do it myself.
I got back to Center City and had nearly forgotten that I was supposed to meet up with a classmate to pray for his Step 1 test the next morning. I booked it over towards campus, met up with him, and we prayed for his exam the next day. He asked me if there was anything to pray for me. It had become a little easier to share the uncertainty of the setback, and I did, asking him to pray for Jesus to heal whatever had gone wrong in that ear, or to show me that His best for me was not to heal it. He did, and said, “Dude, I only see you becoming a physician. I don’t know how the Army thing will work out, but I do know excellent physicians who have hearing-loss, and that doesn’t stop them.”
As the day ended, I felt a little less hopeless about what was going on with my hearing and felt a growing resolve to pray for healing until either it happened or the Lord led me to accept the hearing-loss.