Rush Limbaugh has been off the air for a week. Today he’s back. He got a second cochlear implant, this time in the other ear. He’s sunny and jovial as usual, but it’s a grim battle he’s been fighting for more than a dozen years, and there’s no guarantee he will win it.
He filled us in during his opening monologue. His deafness was caused by an immune disorder. His brain identified the cilia on which hearing depends as a disease to be exterminated. Thirteen years ago he went stone deaf and yet continued his show for months without being able to hear his own voice. Doctors assured him that eventually his speech would become that of a person born deaf, a detectable slur that would end his career. The profession saving answer was a cochlear implant in his left ear, which involves drilling into the skull, removing all the organs of hearing, and replacing them with a prosthetic that operates in a much more limited frequency than a natural ear can process. They left the right ear alone because an implant is irreversible, and maybe there would be a cure someday.
Two things. There will be no cure in his lifetime. And the first implant has been gradually deteriorating. So he had the remaining hearing organs in his brain drilled out and replaced. He’s in the studio today, swaddled in bandages like, as he says, “Claude Rains in The Invisible Man,” and the second implant hasn’t been turned on yet.
There’s a chance it won’t work at all. His right brain has been asleep with respect to processing sounds for 13 years. It might not wake up. No one knows whether it will or not.
I know his enemies will gloat and hope loudly and scatologically for the worst. I’m sure the prospect of a stentorian conservative broadcaster silenced in the end by the ironic sentence of deafness will be risible to the evil ones who consider themselves the arbiters of all things good. But everyone could learn from what Rush shared about the experience of becoming wholly deaf.
Rush explained what very few could. Nothing prepares you for absolute silence. You can imagine blindness by closing your eyes. You cannot imagine deafness. He relates, humorously, that old friends still whisper to him on the golf course, in the wrong ear, even though he cannot detect whispering in his prosthetic ear either. People, he laughs, simply cannot comprehend this kind of disability.
Almost clinically, he describes the nature of the hearing he has enjoyed for the past decade. Only memory makes it work at all. The sound that gets through to him is like a low-Watt AM radio station skipping from Idaho to your transistor set in the small hours of night, staticky, dim, and flat. He cannot recognize a melody without knowing the song first. His memory fills in the blanks in that case. Which means there can be no such thing as new music. Ever.
He cannot identify the location or origin of any sound. Unless he can relate the movement of a mouth with what his implant relays to him, he has no way of knowing who is speaking. And there is no conscious screening, dampening or heightening function. Have you ever heard a tape recording of a conference room meeting you attended? If so, you’d know better what it’s like. It’s incomprehensible, totally alien from your recollection of the event. Suddenly you hear chairs scraping, voices overlapping like a wall of background chatter, the clatter of coffee cups, the continuous ruffle of paper things, and individual voices sound like they come from the bottom of a well. The difference between the recording and your memory is your brain, which subtly turns down the volume on background noise and turns up the volume on the targets of your attention.
The prosthetic is the tape recorder. Unless Rush remembers the voice of the person he’s talking to, everyone “sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks.”
I won’t feel sorry for him. Because he refuses to feel sorry for himself. And if worse comes to worst, he will find some way to prevail.
But I do admire his candor, resolve, and extraordinary good humor in the face of this adversity. And what can only be described as bravery.
If you have online radio on your Internet device, look up this broadcast. At the least it’s educational. At best it’s inspirational.
The very best of luck to you, Rush Limbaugh. I hope you can all join me in that sentiment.