Career-Ending Injuries? Ladies and Gentlemen, Lend Me Your Ears.

February 23, 2022

Even in retirement, many of my friends are active or former First Responders.  The number of them that can relate to this story (even partially) is disconcerting. Please read on.

Brief background:

After about ten years’ service in a suburban Chicago area Police Department, I was yearning for a change of pace and ready to embark on something new. I moved from the Midwest to Colorado and completed the certification process to get Colorado POST certified and hired as a “lateral”.

I took a Law Enforcement position in Southwest Colorado, at a Colorado town known for excellent skiing and music festivals. Attractions were a 4-day workweek, numerous nearby National Parks and circles of friends with the “outdoors” lifestyle. My new hobbies included backpacking, mountaineering, canyoneering, caving, and ice-climbing.  It was great; every weekend I could choose to embark on outdoor adventures that I could never afford to do from the Midwest.  It was also conducive to maintaining a high degree of physical fitness, an important personal goal of mine.

I had built a healthy LE resume, starting two years into my Law Enforcement career, as a firearms Instructor, rangemaster and tactical trainer. Additionally, I was an adjunct instructor at some of the best firearms schools in the nation. Suffice to say that I was fortunate enough to do more firearms training and shooting each year than most officers do in their entire careers.  A lot more. This volume of training and shooting mandated purchasing the very best hearing protection and often, doubling up with earplugs under electronic muffs.  I have heard and given all the range “protect yourself, your-eyes and ears” safety briefings. I was adequately protecting myself. Or so I thought.

I continued my role as firearms trainer/instructor with my new department as well as with my other venues. As hearing protection technology got even better over the years and I constantly upgraded my muffs with better models, sparing no expense.  Five-day shooting schools? Running qualification shoots? Flashbang training? No problem, I was doubled up with the best protective equipment.

After eight years of working loud, outdoor music festivals and doing numerous deafening bar-nightclub checks every night I worked, the gradual hearing loss still seemed to rebound within a few days. Mostly. The initial hearing loss was gradual. It was difficult to objectively measure. I had made Sergeant and was pretty much preoccupied with helping manage the Department.

And so it began…

In 2005 (in my mid-40s), I purchased a conventional over-the-ear hearing aid for my left ear and noticed that it did help when talking to people. This technology even had a “blocking” feature for sounds over a certain decibel level.  This device was, essentially, another layer of noise protection. Except for having batteries, it was not much more trouble than wearing eyeglasses.

When working, I placed my corded radio police pac-set mic up on my shoulder area near the hearing aid. This way, police radio traffic was not hard for me to hear. My right ear was “free” to hear conversation and close proximal personal interaction.

The “Threshold” event

At one of the last concerts of 2018, (the town had obtained updated, even louder sound towers in 2016) I was working close to the sound towers for 10-15 minutes, helping sort out the usual problems that occur backstage. I have never experienced sound waves so unbelievably loud. Every sound pulse resonated through my body like a blast wave. At the conclusion of the concert, I experienced some vertigo and nausea walking out of the venue. The battery in my hearing aid was dead from trying to block the noise; I never heard the “low battery” chime. Both ears were in fact, unprotected.

After a few weeks, I could tell that my hearing was not rebounding back. The tinnitus (ear ringing) was loud enough to almost block out normal conversation. I was also experiencing hyperacusis (a painful super-sensitivity to certain sounds).

At the Audiologist’s

After a battery of various audio tests, it was determined that my hearing was so irreparably damaged that I was a candidate for a hearing device called a “BAHA” that is a “Bone-Anchored Hearing Apparatus”. This is a skull-mounted resonance device about the size of a large button, that processes sound, using the natural resonance of porous bone, thus bypassing the damaged inner ear and rerouting sound signals to the brain. I am told this gadget is installed on babies born without hearing. It seats on a 5mm titanium abutment that is placed in a hole drilled into the skull. It has a friction-fit, like a snap, so it is removable. I have the BAHA on my left side, and a very powerful conventional hearing aid on my right side. See the picture; it is the grayish thing behind my left ear.

Getting one’s hearing corrected is absolutely unlike getting eyeglasses. Hearing enhancements almost never restore one’s hearing back to “normal”. The minimal gains for most permit some level of daily audio-functioning. As for the shrieking tinnitus and hyperacusis, the advice is just “Learn to live with it”. Ultimately, even with high-tech corrective hearing devices, it was determined I could not reliably perform my Law Enforcement duties up to par. Personal communication challenges aside, the devices are fragile and have many serious limitations.  Thus ended a career of over three decades.

Now hear this….

I am still able to do many of the things that I love doing, especially the previously mentioned outdoor activities. I can still attend and conduct classroom, dojo and range training / firearms shoots.

That said, I want to articulate my motive behind selecting and sharing this topic. Post-retirement, I still maintain friendships and have a foot in Law Enforcement-First Responder circles. The topic of damaged hearing comes up, and much too frequently my colleagues say that they too have hearing damage and some level of hearing loss. Protect yourselves, completely. Indeed, there are many damaging, insidious, gradual ways to get hearing loss, beyond the obvious firearms trainings. As First Responders / LEOs we are exposed to them daily.

Takeaways / The things I have learned:

– Firearms training is NOT the only job hazard that can inflict hearing damage and loss.

– Some people are genetically pre-disposed to damage from soundwaves (!) I confirmed this as fact with my audiologist.

– Once hearing is “lost”, it is unlikely to be restored. Hearing apparatuses can help a bit in some cases.

– Hearing damage and loss is degenerative. More exposure to the hazards damages the hearing more until there is little left. A little hearing loss today can be functionally deaf months from now.

– If you suspect you may have hearing damage/loss, get tested ASAP to see how far down the “damage path” you are. The hearing aid technology does offer a little protection.

– My hearing loss process was gradual…until one night it wasn’t.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I am glad and grateful that my career-ending injuries are not worse. But I’m appealing to other First-Responder brothers and sisters to step back and perhaps evaluate their exposure and personal experience with job related hearing damage. A measure of care, awareness and applied technology can go a long way in curbing hearing loss that you’ll never regain.

Thank You All. Stay safe out there.

 

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