I have a personal passion when it comes to hearing aids and was distressed to read that a CCG in Devon was contemplating offering just one hearing aid to its patients on the NHS. There was an incredible backlash from charities and hearing loss campaigners who branded it as cruel, which it is! You don’t get given glasses with only one lens, because vision, like hearing, relies on both organs working in symmetry.
The reason I get annoyed is because I had an uncle who was profoundly deaf for most of his adult life. He missed out on so much conversation and fun, and was reliant on his wife to interpret for him when he couldn’t understand what people were trying to say to him.
He was deafened while defending his country as a fighter pilot during the Second World War. The combination of loud engines, gunfire, and rapid altitude changes damaged his hearing as a 21-year-old Captain flying Spitfires. He was shot down over Dieppe in 1943 and spent the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp in Poland. He lost 8000 comrades on the march of death back from Poland into Germany as the Russians advanced. He never complained and rarely spoke about his experiences.
My own childhood was riddled with illnesses and injuries and when I was down he used to tell me what got him through his dark days. He would dream of being at home on his farm, only to wake up and find himself still in the camp. To cheer himself up he used to say ‘damn, double damn, three bloody hells, and a bu**er!’ It didn’t change his situation but it made him smile. I tried it once and got a clip around the ear, as 12 year olds should not swear!
Despite having a terrible time he never gave up, and came back to have another 72 years of life lived to the full. It was only towards the end of his life that anyone even suggested he could have hearing aids. He was fitted with only one, which was very confusing and only helped if you were on that side. It frustrated him to such an extent it was more unhelpful than of benefit, particularly as it seemed to only amplify his own voice and the sound of him chewing his food.
When I was Chair of my CCG we made sure that our patients were given two hearing aids. The previous contract was for one and it transpired the funding would have been sufficient for two anyway. One of my patients, of whom I am very fond, reminds me of my uncle in so much that he fought in the war and was blown up and shot twice at Monte Casino and I have removed bits of shrapnel that remained since those injuries. He became profoundly deaf and bought his own aids, but later couldn’t afford to replace them. I referred him to one provider who fitted hearing aids that drove him mad as he could only hear himself. When he questioned why he wasn’t given like for like, he was told it was the NHS! I felt so cross that I re-referred him to another provider who treated him completely differently, ‘kindly and efficiently’, and fitted him with aids that were easy to use and ’very satisfactory’. He took the time to write to me to thank me as he could now hear conversations again.
What frustrates me is that we treat deafness like a lost cause but there is so much more that can be done. Patients with hearing loss complain that people treat them like idiots and talk down to them in a patronising manner. It causes great social isolation and can lead to unemployment and depression. It takes on average about 10 years for someone to get help after first reporting hearing loss to their GP. There is so much more that we could and should do.
There are many charities that can help educate and advise patients with hearing loss and we should set national standards for CCGs to meet, in order to prevent patients being treated differently depending on their locality. I am raising money for Sense, the deafblind charity, by running the 2015 London Marathon this month in memory of my war hero uncle who should have had better care on the NHS, which only came to be as a result of Britain winning the war in which he fought.