Transcript for 'Silence'

BOB CARLSON (HOST): From KCRW and, I'm Bob Carlson and this is UnFictional.

UnFictional is KCRW's program of stories and original documentaries.

Today on the program, two stories about breakdowns in the sense of hearing.

As someone who makes his living making radio, I am acutely aware of my hearing, and the sounds around me. I navigate with sound, my moods are affected by sound, I even LISTEN to television as much as I watch it and that's why the idea of LOSING my hearing is serious business.

For the last twenty years or so, people with hearing loss have been able to restore some of it with an electronic device called a cochlear implant. The solution is by no means perfect, and many people in the deaf community find them unnecessary or unsettling.

Amanda McDonough is a 22-year-old graduate of Cal Poly Pomona. All her life, she's had hearing problems. She wore hearing aids and hid the fact from everyone she knew.

And mostly she got by.

But then, last year, everything changed. Independent radio producer Brian Calvert spent some time with Amanda and her family, and produced this story.... on KCRW and, it's UnFictional and... The Rest is Silence.


AMANDA McDONOUGH: The summer of 2011. My goal was to get back in shape and actively pursue my acting career, when I met a boy. Isn't that how all these stories start? [She laughs] He got sick. Nothing big, nothing exciting, just a normal sore throat and a cough. I don't have a very great immune system, so I ended up pretty sick. My doctor recommended that once I get a little better, I have my tonsils removed. So I did. And it was at this time that I started to notice that I couldn't really hear.

JOE McDONOUGH: My name is Joe McDonough, and I'm Amanda's father. Amanda was in many, many musicals as she was growing up in high school, and so she always tended to get one of the main parts in the musicals. I knew that she wore hearing aids and that she had some hearing impairment, but when your daughter's playing leads in musicals, how serious could it be, right?

JULIE McDONOUGH: I'm Julie McDonough, and I am Amanda's mother. I picked up the phone, I dialed her as I always do, and she says Mom I know you're there but I can't hear you, will text me?

AMANDA McDONOUGH: Well, there was a falling out with the, uh, boyfriend at the time. [She laughs] He got sick, I took care of him, and then while I was sick, he went on a short vacation to San Francisco with a couple of his friends. And the day after he came back, he comes up to me and tells me that he cheated on me in San Francisco. So one of the first lip-reading sentences I did was, "I cheated on you in San Francisco."

[MUSIC: Gentle solo piano, under the following]

JULIE McDONOUGH: Becoming deaf was a journey all of us took with her, but a lot of us declined to acknowledge. That made it harder, I think, sometimes for Amanda…

JOE McDONOUGH: She lost her ability to hear Julie first, but she could still hear the lower end of my voice; she lost her ability to hear my wife; 'course, she says I had lost that ability too, but…[They all laugh]

AMANDA McDONOUGH: When I became deaf, it was almost a relief. I spent my entire life being afraid of losing any more of my hearing. I spent my entire life praying every night: 'Please don't let it get any worse, please don't let it get any worse.' And when it was finally all gone, it was just kind of like [She sighs heavily], 'all right, now what do I do'?

[MUSIC: The piano music fractures and decays]


DR. JANE GAY: Hi, it's Jane.

RECEPTIONIST: (over an intercom): Your one o'clock patient is here.

DR. JANE GAY: Thanks, Sally.

RECEPTIONIST: (over an intercom): You're welcome. B-bye.

DR. JANE GAY: I'm Jane Gay, a clinical audiologist in the adult cochlear implant program at House Clinic in Los Angeles. She came in and she was very, very clear that she hadn't made up her mind if this was the direction she wanted to go in. She said, I'm just trying to accept that this has happened to me…

[DR. GAY works an audio player.]

DR. JANE GAY: Here we go.

[We hear a violin passage from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite.]

DR. JANE GAY: 10 to 20, 25 percent of implant users are able to enjoy music--You recognize that; that's from the Nutcracker--but unfortunately, not everybody.

So now I'm gonna play…this is just bare bones cochlear implant.

[We hear her press "Play" and then we hear the same violin passage from the Nutcracker, simulated to sound the way it would to a patient with a “bare-bones cochlear implant”: this time it sounds entirely percussive, a little like a rattle and a snare drum playing the melody. The "music" fades; the scene fades]

JULIE McDONOUGH: I could see it at first, when she came out of that appointment and she hadn't made a final decision and she was like, crying one second and happy the other…

AMANDA McDONOUGH: And I said, ‘I'm going to get it! And I slammed my hands down on the table, and I was like: 'I'm not gonna think about it anymore, I'm not gonna over-think it; I'm getting it, and we're not talking about it anymore, and she was like, 'OK.'

[Laughter, then scene fades]

AMANDA McDONOUGH: So tomorrow, I am scheduled for my cochlear implant surgery. At 9 am, I have my last meeting with my surgeon, Dr. House.


DR. HOUSE: Good morning! How are you all?

[The family responds; everyone trades pleasantries; over that we hear the follwing:]

AMANDA McDONOUGH: We were joking the other day at lunch, about how, like you can watch ESPN before a game and find out if a player's knee is bothering them; you can try to tell whether or not their going to play as well that day. I wish they did that with surgeons.

DR. HOUSE [to the assembled family]: The surgery itself will take about an hour, to an hour and a half. When you come out of surgery, you'll go to a recovery room for about an hour. In about three weeks you'll receive her external processor.

AMANDA McDONOUGH: Thanks so much, Dr. House.

DR. HOUSE: Well, you're very welcome. And I will see you all this afternoon.

[MUSIC: An electronic melody; but warm, almost like bells. Serene and hopeful, it blends with the beeping of electronic monitors]


DR. LEE: Hi!


DR. LEE: Nice to meet you. I'm Dr. Lee, anesthesiologist...

AMANDA McDONOUGH: Nice to meet you.

DR. LEE: ...I'm the one main guy put you to sleep and wake you up. [They laugh] Your life in my hands now. [They laugh]

[MUSIC: Those electronic bells, indicating that some time's passed]


AMANDA McDONOUGH: It smells like peppermint.

DR. LEE: Okay. Good night! Bye.

DR. HOUSE: The sound will come in, just like it normally does — it hits the eardrum and goes through the little ear bones, it vibrates the fluid — but there's no little sensors there to sense the vibration. So, what happens is, the sound doesn't get transmitted onto the brain. So, what's internal is the receiver and the electrodes. The external processor is where the computer is, that takes sound and processes sound, converts the sound to an electrical message, causes the electrodes, then, to stimulate the hearing nerve itself.


AMANDA McDONOUGH: Coming out of the anesthesia was not fun. Couple days I had a little bit of difficulty with the recovery, really dizzy. There was pain. It's two days before the outer piece of my cochlear implant gets put on, and I am really nervous. [She giggles] I've started becoming frustrated from trying to communicate with my own family members, and I've started kind of isolating myself a little...more than usual.

Yesterday, my uncle came over, my aunt was here, my grandmother, my parents, my brother—everyone's sitting around our kitchen table; they're talking and having a grand old time, and I couldn't keep up. I couldn't figure out who was talking when, I got so frustrated my eyes started to water and I just walked out of the house and went for a walk, because I couldn't… because…[Amanda's voice starts to break] my life, I'm alone in this. And I know they try. I really, really do, but they'll never understand what it's like, to be me. To live in a world that is completely silent, all the time, and where you feel utterly and completely alone.

[SOUNDS OF A DOCTOR'S OFFICE. It's the office of Dr. Jane Gay]

DR. JANE GAY: OK, I'm gonna turn this on. It's gonna give you a little bit of a jolt in the beginning.

AMANDA McDONOUGH [quietly]: A jolt?

DR. JANE GAY: You'll see. [A pause] It'll take just a couple seconds before it kicks on.

AMANDA McDONOUGH: Okay. That's weird…kind of like, vibration.

DR. JANE GAY: Uh huh...Amanda, can you hear my voice?

AMANDA McDONOUGH: Wow! That...[Amanda giggles, nervous]

DR. JANE GAY: Do you hear my voice? Does it sound weird?

AMANDA McDONOUGH: It sounds like…[She giggles again]...a robot?

DR. JANE GAY [reassuringly]: A robot. That's okay. Do you hear words?


DR. JANE GAY: Is my voice far, far away? Or is it right here in the room?

AMANDA McDONOUGH: Oh my God, it just changed! [Giggles]

DR. JANE GAY: OK. Is my voice right here in the room, or is it far, far away?

AMANDA McDONOUGH: It's a little far away, but I can hear words now.

DR. JANE GAY: OK. It's gonna get better and better. I just made my voice come in a little bit closer. Is that a little better?

AMANDA McDONOUGH: Yeah, it is.

DR. JANE GAY: OK. And you're understanding me?

AMANDA McDONOUGH [laughing]: Yes!

[Amanda starts to sob]

DR. JANE GAY: That's fantastic. That's fantastic. [Dr. Gay passes Amanda a tissue] Here.

AMANDA McDONOUGH [sobbing]: Sorry.


DR. JANE GAY: That's okay. Everybody cries. Even I do.

[Amanda's laughing through her tears]

DR. JANE GAY: I mean, this is amazing, isn't it.

AMANDA McDONOUGH [really sobbing]: Wow. I haven't heard somebody say a word in so long.

DR. JANE GAY: I know. Come here.

[They hug; and as Amanda continues to cry, Dr. Gay is patting her on the back]



AMANDA McDONOUGH: Got it? Yes, I can hear the phone ring now. Which is exciting.

I got bubble wrap the other day. I was putting my diploma in its frame, and the frame's covered in bubble wrap, so I take the bubble wrap off and I accidentally pop one, and it's like, "Oh my gosh, what is that?" Then of course I have to lay it down on the floor and, like, start pounding them out. My mom thought I was a little crazy. She's sitting home watching TV and I'm sitting on the floor of the living room, 22 years old, popping bubble wrap like a five year-old child with my eyes wide and all excited, so…that's what it's been like: every day I get a new sound, and then I have to learn it, and memorize it, and understand it.

Music is actually starting to sound a little better. When it comes to, like, music I know, like from the past, music I'm really familiar with, it starts sounding a little more like music.

I'm deaf, I'm always gonna be deaf. The second this thing comes off, the second it runs out of batteries, I hear nothing. Nothing all, complete silence. And sometimes I really like that. Sounds can be overwhelming. Like, people talking, can get annoying. Sometimes I like to take it off, just because, you know what, I could use some silence for a few minutes.


That story was produced by Brian Calvert and edited by Jacob Conrad. It was mixed by me, Bob Carlson. With production assistance from Jennifer Swiatek.

You're listening to UnFictional on KCRW and You can find all our old shows at the website, Don't forget to like the show on Facebook when you're there, and follow us on Twitter @UnFictional.