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updated: 3/5/2013 8:35 AM

Wheaton woman triumphs over disabling hearing loss

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  • Completely deaf whenever she is not wearing this cochlear implant device, Nancy Chovancek of Wheaton has written a book about her struggles with hearing loss.

       Completely deaf whenever she is not wearing this cochlear implant device, Nancy Chovancek of Wheaton has written a book about her struggles with hearing loss.
    Burt Constable | Staff Photographer

  • Using this remote to control the signals of her cochlear implant device, Nancy Chovancek of Wheaton can once again hear well enough to talk on the phone.

       Using this remote to control the signals of her cochlear implant device, Nancy Chovancek of Wheaton can once again hear well enough to talk on the phone.
    Burt Constable | Staff Photographer

  • Not looking like herself after surgery to install cochlear implant devices behind her ears, Nancy Chovancek of Wheaton went a month without hearing anything. Now, when she wears the device, she hears well enough to use the telephone again.

      Not looking like herself after surgery to install cochlear implant devices behind her ears, Nancy Chovancek of Wheaton went a month without hearing anything. Now, when she wears the device, she hears well enough to use the telephone again.
    Courtesy of Nancy Chovancek

  • Video: How a cochlear implant works

 
 

It might be irony that prevented you from hearing that Sunday was International Ear Care Day. But it could be something more.

More than 365 million people in the world suffer from disabling hearing loss, according to the World Health Organization. While one out of every three people older than 65 lives with hearing loss, so do 32 million children younger than 15, the agency notes. In an effort to spread the word and inform others about the struggles faced by people with hearing issues, Nancy Chovancek of Wheaton wrote a book now available on Amazon.com titled "I Can Finally Hear Birds: A Candid, Comical And Intimate Journey About Hearing Loss, Meniere's Disease And Cochlear Implants."

"I had constant earaches when I was a kid," remembers Chovancek, 49, who grew up in Roselle and graduated from Lake Park High School in 1982. "You'd get ear drops and cotton balls, and that was that."

It wasn't until she was an adult that she learned her problem had a name.

Hopping on a spinning ride at the Kane County Fair, Chovancek became uncharacteristically dizzy and nauseated. Three months later, her hearing seemed different. Sounds were muffled.

"There was a fullness in my ears, like I was talking in a tunnel," she says.

A doctor diagnosed Meniere's disease, a disorder of the inner ear that can cause spontaneous episodes of vertigo (a spinning sensation), tinnitus (ringing or buzzing) and hearing loss. While the syndrome has many causes, Chovancek suspects it grew out of the lingering infections from her youth.

"OK. I'm 21. So what do I have to do to fix it?" Chovancek remembers saying with the confidence of youth.

She took diuretics, which worked to limit the fluid buildup in her ear, but Meniere's disease has no cure. In her 30s, Chovancek suffered from vertigo so severe she would vomit. Tinnitus came to her right ear and, a year later, spread to her left. She frequently asked people to repeat a question.

"It started affecting my relationships, my work, my life, everything. You get left out of conversations. You feel like you're over here and everybody else is over there," Chovancek says. "Most people don't realize they are losing their hearing. When's the last time you heard your dishwasher run?"

The little background sounds of life -- from the dishwasher to the chirping of birds -- disappeared.

"I started wearing hearing aids, the small ones, in 2006," says Chovancek, who admits she had to overcome the social stigma of wearing them. "Then I had to go to the big grandpa ones in 2007."

The death of both her parents exactly a year apart helped inspire Chovancek to retire from her job as a corporate project manager in March 2009 and follow her dream. She got a degree in web graphic design from DeVry University and launched her own Pegleg Web Design & Online Marketing business.

But her hearing loss became so severe, she no longer could understand conversations on the telephone.

"I didn't use the telephone for a year. My communication was text messages, email, notes and hand puppets," Chovancek says, showing how her husband, Dave, and her son, Matt, developed hand gestures to make her understand.

"If you want to communicate, you don't need to speak," says Dave, who adds that he wrote plenty of notes and also became a more-than-adequate texter.

Working with the Hinsdale office of the Ear Institute of Chicago, which also has an office in Elk Grove Village, Chovancek eventually qualified for a cochlear implant, a device that uses a digital processor to send sound signals to the brain and let people hear again.

The surgery to install sound processors behind her ears left Chovancek completely deaf for a month. When they activated the device on March 11, 2009, Chovancek began training her brain to interpret the sounds. While she and her husband walked their three German shepherds around their neighborhood, she heard a noise she didn't recognize.

"I said, 'What is that sound?' and Dave said, 'Those are birds, hon,'" recalls Chovancek, who remembers crying at the news. "I was so sad because I hadn't heard those sounds for over five years. When I see people walking around with earbuds, I think, 'You don't know what you are missing.'"

She talks on the phone again, uses a remote control to adjust the sound and is completely deaf when she takes off the device. Her issues aren't over, however, as Chovancek has been struggling with a severe form of vertigo known as "drop attacks," in which people experience the sensation of falling. But she's hopeful a new treatment with Chicago Dizziness and Hearing can curb that problem.

In the meantime, she celebrates what she has.

"I don't need my ears any more. They are basically ornaments for my earrings," Chovancek says. "But I can hear, and I am grateful that I can hear."

At times, her deafness can even be useful, she says. While sky divers sometimes complain about the scary whoosh when the airplane doors open, Chovancek parachuted twice last summer without her implants.

"If I want to sky dive at 14,000 feet, I don't have a problem," Chovancek says. "I don't hear anything."

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