By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
If I ever doubted I had a computer attached to my skull, the letter I received in June 2021 made it clear. Cochlear, the company that makes my cochlear implant, sent a letter to everyone who used a particular version of one of its CIs that it was no longer going to be supported after September 2022. (That date was later changed to March 2023 due to the pandemic.) That means Cochlear would no longer repair broken processors, nor would it sell accessories compatible with the CI. In plain terms, if a part broke or needed to be replaced, you were going to be out of luck.
I’d already gone through the nightmare of trying to replace a broken part after my ear surgeon’s office closed in 2021, because you need a doctor and an audiologist to request certain materials. I did find an audiologist to handle that problem and, after a discussion last year, we decided I could wait until this summer to start the process of getting the new CI. By the way, to answer a question many people have asked: I did not have to have more surgery. The processor sits on the outside of my head. The magnet and coil, which are under my skin, are compatible with the new one. (I think if people had to have surgery again, there would have been an outcry about the company not supporting older versions.)
I made an appointment to see the new audiologist this spring to start the process. That’s when I discovered that the path to receiving a new CI was not what I expected. The biggest difference is that I had to order the processor myself and have it delivered to my house, rather than having the audiologist order it. (It’s so expensive that, for the first time in years, I had to sign for a package.) The audiologist walked me through the two types of processors Cochlear would offer me: one would resemble the one I had, which has a part that hooks behind my ear. The other would be radically different: it was a circular device that would only connect to my head by the magnet, rather than by a magnet and an earpiece. He gave me the information on how to make the Zoom appointment with someone from Cochlear so she could walk me through the insurance part of the process.
It turns out there were some differences between what the audiologist and Cochlear said, although not enough to be a problem. The new processor came with far fewer accessories, although there were a few fun things: the remote control is now on my phone, rather than a separate device. (She wasn’t sure my phone would be compatible, but it turns out it is. I rarely use the remote, but it’s handy to have it on something I usually carry with me when I leave the house.) The big surprise is that I filled out the pages and pages of forms for the insurance correctly the first time. (I was really expecting an e-mail telling me all the parts I missed.)
I chose the CI with the earpiece, not just because I worried that the CI would frequently go flying off my head. (You can get a cord to attach it to your clothing so it won’t disappear.) I didn’t like the fact that the batteries and the processor were one piece. If one of my batteries dies, I have others I can immediately use. The other version of the CI has the processor and battery as one, meaning that when you charge it, you can’t use the CI. The batteries also start to run down over time and while I can (and have) bought new ones for my CI, I would have to replace the whole device if I used the other processor.
One fun decision was picking the color of the processor: white, because I want it to stand out. If your first impulse is to ask the question one friend did – why didn’t you get a pink or purple one – that’s because they don’t make them in pink or purple (sigh). The new CI is thinner and lighter, which is nice, especially since I wear glasses and still have to wear a mask on a regular basis. I was warned that the sound might be different since the electrodes are grouped differently. Fortunately, I haven’t noticed any difference except that the sound coming through my hearing aid sounds louder. I have no idea why that’s happening, but I don’t mind since I can turn that down if I need to.
It’s a relief to have the whole process over – well, over except for paying my deductible, which is more than $1,700 (although it would have been worse if I hadn’t switched insurances before ordering the CI). I’m scheduled to see the audiologist again in March unless I have a problem. (He did note that his out-of-town clients frequently cancel if the weather is bad: Route 81 to Syracuse is no fun during a snowstorm.) The only real worry I have is that Cochlear will decide this new version is obsolete in few years. While I appreciate upgrades in technology, I prefer not to buy new electronic equipment unless there is a real need!