It’s fortunate I learned to type when I was young because I can write these notes even since my eyes closed over. I cannot hear the faint clicking of the keys on my laptop. But I can still feel them subtly rebounding in a way you would hardly notice unless you needed to.
You will have to forgive me if I make spelling mistakes. I have no way to double check what I have written. I can’t hear a sound, can’t smell a thing, can’t even see my own hands. Four weeks ago, I could do all three.
I think I know what comes next; the only remaining opening in my head will close over. Why this is happening I do not know. Did I walk upon a fairy grave, get cursed by an old wretch, or upset the wrong god? All I know is it’s happening and I think suffocation is a terrible way to die. Especially when you know it is coming.
If it would only stop now, I could still live. What kind of a life would it be without sight, sound and smell? Perhaps it would be no life at all, but it would be life.
I told the doctors I wanted to come home to die. Weeks of being prodded, pricked, incised, and injected was enough for me. They tried every surgical technique they could think of to reopen the closed orifices. Yet within an hour, sometimes much less time, they would seal over again, each time more thickly than the last.
I think they would have loved for me to have become a permanent laboratory rat. Doctors had already come from all over Ireland to see me. Consultants in other countries watched the procedures over live-streams, proffering advice. Each had their own idea about what was wrong with me, myriad suggestions on how to fix me but none of them were right.
It began not even a month ago when I awoke one morning with a feeling as if one of my ears was blocked. I had been swimming the night before in my local pool so that seemed the obvious explanation. I used the knuckle of my right index finger, rotating it on the tragus, to try and dislodge the water but nothing would come. In the shower, I used the palm of my hand like a plunger to see if that would clear it. That didn’t work either.
I assumed it would resolve itself during the day and as I sat at my desk in an office block looking across to the Custom House, it was just a mild nuisance. The familiar sound of my workplace was a little muted, at times seemed to dully echo. I remember too that after sitting for long periods, standing up would throw my equilibrium ever so slightly off kilter.
My colleague Sinéad saw me rubbing at my ear, asked me if I was OK. She suggested I tilt my head to the side, gently tap at it, then try to cup my hand over it. But that failed too and I wondered if I might need to get it syringed.
On the train home to Maynooth that evening, the blockage seemed to be getting even worse. I remembered the words of my late mother telling me how you should never put anything in your ear. But I couldn’t help myself, inserting my finger into one ear first, then the other. And even just by touch, it seemed as if the unhearing one was swollen.
One thing I should confess up front, I’m a hypochondriac, have been since my early teens, even worse since my both parents died of cancer. Any time something goes awry with my body, my first instinct is to think the worst – usually a malignant tumour of one sort or other. Nonetheless, I slept soundly, hoping at some point during the night, the water that blocked my ear might drain harmlessly on to my pillow.
It was worse in the morning. I suppose when your ear is blocked, you assume you cannot hear. But really, it’s more that your hearing has been diminished. This was different, as if the switch for my right ear had been powered off. I took some cotton buds, rooted around to see if I could dislodge the obstruction. And that’s when I felt a sort of pop. It was a little like if you closed your nostrils and breathed out sharply through your nose on a climbing airplane. But much sharper and much more intense.
There was an ache in my ear now, a dull throbbing. Now my health anxiety got the kickstart it required. I’d never heard of an ear cancer, didn’t even know if there was such a thing. There must be, I thought, there are cancers for every other part of the human body. And that slight swelling I had felt the evening before, it was much more apparent now.
I briefly considered calling my doctor’s office but I had a little bit of a complex about it. I was a regular visitor there; too regular. Sometimes, the receptionist would recognise my voice even though it was a busy surgery. I could almost see Dr McCarthy sitting there, ever patient but ever so slightly exasperated: ‘Neil, I promise you it’s nothing to worry about. See how you feel in a week and maybe we can have a look at your anxiety meds again.’
I got off the train at Tara Street as normal, stopping at a nearby chemist shop. I bought some Cerumol and in the toilets of our Liffey-side offices, I gently allowed five drops of the oil fall inside the affected ear. The instructions said to leave your head tilted to the side for a few minutes, before wiping it clean with a tissue. But when I straightened up again, the oil, with its clinical pungent odour, just ran back out like a tap.
I tried the drops again at lunch-time, and again that evening when I got home. Each time, the liquid came streaming out, stopped by some insurmountable obstacle. The pain had worn off at least, and there was no more dizziness, as if my body had already grown accustomed to having only a single working ear. My mind did not adjust so rapidly however, and I began to fear the worst. No matter what, I would be calling the doctor’s office in the morning.
I phoned at 9am on the dot but a pre-recorded message said the surgery was not open yet. I dialled again immediately, and got through. The voice that answered was unfamiliar and I was, in truth, a little relieved. The normal secretary must have been off sick or on holidays. Better again, there was a single appointment still available, just after lunch-time. But when the receptionist told me the time, I had to ask her to repeat it, because I could not properly hear her through my left ear.
I tried to reassure myself, kept repeating in my mind that I was imagining things, gently berated myself for letting my thoughts get the better of me. There was nothing wrong with my left ear; how could there be? Maybe the receptionist had mumbled the appointment time, or the phone line had momentarily crackled. I had nothing worse than a bad infection that antibiotics would clear. Perhaps I could talk to Dr McCarthy about adjusting my anti-depressant as well while I was there.
In the doctor’s waiting room, I tried to distract myself with a game on my mobile phone but I could not get my mind to settle. I fidgeted with my watch and my glasses, wondered why doctors always gave you an appointment time they could never meet. I picked up a copy of National Geographic, flicked through the pages, but I read nothing. There were two people still to be seen before me, one coughing vigorously. As my panic rose, I half-contemplated leaving.
Dr McCarthy came to call me at last. “Neil, how are you?” he said, with a smile intended to reassure. As I stepped into his office, he told me to take a seat. “And what do you want to talk to me about today?” he asked. His gentle voice and quiet authority settled me down a little.
“OK,” he said. “Let me take a look at that ear of yours.” He took the otoscope, and gently placed the instrument inside. “Mmmm,” he whispered softly to himself. He took the device out, replaced the speculum, and tried it again. “Hmmmm.”
“All right, Neil,” he said, and there was a slight but obvious hesitation as he spoke. I won’t lie; the pause frightened me. I began to fear the worst with no idea of what it might be. “Did you get a bang on the ear, or anything like that?”
“I was swimming,” I said, “I thought maybe it just got blocked; that happened to me before. But normally it would just work itself out.”
“Well, to be honest,” replied Dr McCarthy, and I immediately thought that ‘to be honest’ wasn’t something you wanted to hear from your doctor. “There’s no obvious sign of infection, but it does appear as if there was some kind of trauma, and there is swelling of some sort there. I think really this calls for an ENT consultant.”
He began to tap on his keyboard, typing up a referral letter. “I’m going to get this expedited,” he said, “it’s a little bit unusual. I don’t think it’s anything to be too worried about but let’s just stay on the safe side.”
I couldn’t find the words to formulate a question, to ask exactly what he had seen. Panic was simmering so strongly within me that the only thing I really wanted was to be anywhere but that room.
“Is there anything else you need to ask me?” he said.
I moved my head from side to side indicating no, and rose from my seat. The sudden movement left me a touch light-headed, and with a perceptible ringing in what was now my good ear.
“If anything changes for the worse,” said Dr McCarthy, “don’t hesitate to call us here, or the night doctor service.”
I paid my bill at the front desk, but my mind was elsewhere – on hospital rooms and operating tables, on chemotherapy ports and linear accelerators. The dizziness was more acute, and the ringing was now a clanging in my brain.
Back home, laid out on my l-shaped sofa, I tried to listen to a meditation on my phone’s app Calm. A kind voice was telling me to slow my breathing, to clear my mind, to let my muscles relax. It almost always worked. Not that day though. For I could feel that my left ear was closing over too.
Even in the worst moments of my hypochondria, I never had to ring 999. Now, I found myself on the phone to a dispatcher, frantic, disjointed: “I can’t hear anything, my ears are after sealing over.” When I look back now, I wonder if they thought me insane. Whatever words they said back to me, I did not hear. But the frenzy in my voice was enough to see an ambulance at my front door about twenty minutes later.
The days that followed passed in a tranquilised haze. Doctors came and went with their otoscopes and auditory equipment. Much of the time, it felt like I was in a film, with the volume muted. Events happened around me without noise. I would see people move but hear no footsteps while the TV in the corner played in a never-ending silence. There were machines around me, which I am sure must have beeped, while the mouths of nurses and porters opened and closed soundlessly.
I spoke through notepad and pen as tentative plans were made for a sign language interpreter to come teach me to understand again. On my iPad, in my wakeful moments, I would watch instructional videos on YouTube so I could start to pick up the most basic signs. It felt like something to focus my mind, to challenge me, to take me away from pitch black thoughts. I won’t pretend it was easy, but the sedation eased me, and one Zolpidem each night was enough to ensure some sleep. I think I found a courage too – at least while it was just my ears that had closed.
I was in hospital three, or maybe four days when I remember waking one morning with what felt like a head cold. It was the tail-end of the Covid era, and I panicked a little that I might have contracted it again. My mouth was bone-dry like I’d been breathing through it all night. My nose felt bunged up. But the peculiar thing was the blockage was in a single nostril. I put one finger up just to see, and it was as before. I met the resistance earlier on one side, like there was an obstruction there.
Except that I was already in hospital, I might not have mentioned it. But I was at a point where even the most minor of physical sensations unsettled me. I scribbled some words in my notepad, showed it to the nurse. She seemed disinterested, or more likely just busy, in a ward where she had more patients than she had time for.
A doctor came that evening to look inside my ears yet again as if anything was going to change. I pointed to my nose, jabbing my index finger up and down, hoping he would understand. He gestured to me to tilt my head back so that he could examine it. I could see the perplexity in his eyes, almost hear the ‘hmmmm’.
The morning after, I was taken for my first surgical procedure. They were going to try and restore the hearing in my right ear, to remove the growth that had completely closed off my auditory canal. I sat slightly reclined in a chair reminiscent of a dentist’s office. They gave me enough local anaesthetic so that I could only feel the pressure of the scalpel but no pain. The sedative drugs I was already getting to relieve my now extreme anxiety made the operation itself pass almost dreamlike.
For perhaps two hours afterwards, I could hear noise again, albeit muffled as though I was wearing a particularly effective ear plug. It was almost overwhelming to again experience the sound of reassuring words, bleeping machines, and the hum of a busy hospital.
Back in my ward, I must have dozed a little. I could feel a hand gently tapping me on the shoulder – it was the surgeon come to check on me. As my eyes adjusted to the light of the room, I could see his lips moving but only in a chilling silence. I had to reach for my pen and pad, and I could see the mystification on his face. As they peeled back the dressing that covered my ear, the surgeon put his otoscope inside. It was immediately apparent that my ear had sealed shut once more.
They tried again two days later on my left ear. By that stage, my second nostril had closed over so that sleep became more difficult. I’d find myself waking frequently, as if struggling for air, before nodding off again. There was a constant bone-deep tiredness, as I drifted through each day. The second surgery was no more successful than the first. There was an even briefer interval of dampened sound, before I returned to the silent world.
I grew weary of the endless stream of people that came to look inside my ears and up my nose. There were bruises in the pit of my elbow from blood tests and cannulation. An infection had developed in my sinuses and I was on strong antibiotics, which made me feel nauseous. In my increasingly rare energetic moments, I would pace the corridor. A nurse’s aide kept close watch on me, as if I was a zoo animal that might escape.
I was frightened in a way that’s very hard to articulate. There were moments of sheer terror about what would come next but also an unsettling resignation, like I no longer had enough energy to be petrified. I would try to look at the sign language videos but my mind retained nothing. Ten minutes of watching could pass and I would not have absorbed a single thing. My appetite vanished. And without a sense of smell, the bland hospital food became even more tasteless.
The morning my right eye closed over, they moved me to a room on my own. I had awoken with a peculiar feeling like the walls of the four-bay ward were closing in on me. It took me a moment to realise what had happened. I put my trembling hand up to my face, ran my fingers across where my eye should have been. It felt like toughened skin, like on the sole of your foot. And if I tried to blink, it was as if my eyelid was stuck with glue. I took my mobile phone from the bedside table. I switched it to selfie mode to see what I looked like, and immediately vomited all across the floor.
Day by day, I grew weaker. I was in a windowed room of the intensive care unit, a set of caring eyes never far away. I found it ever harder to eat, to keep anything down. The infection in my sinuses had spread to my throat and lungs, and I coughed from sunrise to sunset. I had a permanent line for fluids and intravenous antibiotics as doctors debated the best way to treat me. I was almost a bystander to my own care now; they couldn’t answer my questions and I couldn’t bring myself to ask them.
Gradually, the infection began to subside. I regained some of my strength, so that sitting up was no longer tiring. I could even take the few steps to and from the bathroom without feeling I might collapse. It was at least a week since there had been any further complications. Perhaps this was the end of my torture. Losing the sight of one eye was devastating but I tried to convince myself I would manage. I could still see after all. I asked for a laptop so that I could make my own account of what had happened, just in case this ever happened to someone else.
It was a Sunday morning, that much I know, even as days and dates seemed to have shed all meaning. I awoke in total blackness. For a moment, I wondered if I was dreaming, a horribly vivid nightmare of absence. But the seconds passed and I woke no further. I could move my arms and legs, managed to raise a quivering hand up to my left eye. There was that same calloused skin across the surface, hard and rough like the thumb of a seamstress. I began to scream, and scream. I didn’t stop until the nurse came and sedated me.
It’s been four days now and I want to go home. But I can do nothing for myself and I understand I will never leave this room. The respiratory infection has returned, and the awful thick sputum that gets spat out of my lungs is, I’m told, tinged with blood. I have to be handfed, but every spoonful feels as if it will make me retch.
My remaining solace are the plastic keys of this laptop, the almost imperceptible bounce they give beneath my fingers with every stroke. I cannot see these words but I know they appear on screen as if by magic. These sentences are all I leave behind. I don’t fear death, but I am terrified of suffocation.
Ken Foxe is a freelance writer and transparency campaigner in Ireland. He has written two non-fiction books based on his journalism and when not working, or hanging out with his kids, enjoys writing short stories and speculative fiction.
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