On Thanksgiving Day, I received an email that deeply moved me. It was from a woman named Elena, in Greece, who had found my email address on the internet. So much of what Elena experienced transcends national boundaries. But as her story shows, much doesn’t.
Her email reminded me to be thankful for how relatively tolerant and accepting Americans are about disability. I have omitted Elena’s last name, to protect her privacy. At her request I’ve also added some punctuation.
“My name is Elena L. and I am Greek. I am 30 years old, a doctor, a psychiatrist actually and I have a cochlear implant at my right ear. I'm sorry if my ability to write in English is poor. I just read some of your articles at the New York Times and wanted to send you my story.
I have been deaf since the age of 3 from unknown reasons. However, I tend to believe, after I studied medicine that deafness came from some kind of antibiotic, or a virus. I grew up wearing only one hearing aid, which allowed me to learn speaking and helped me listening to the music.
My parents were very caring. My mother forced me to read literature aloud everyday to improve my speech. My father pushed me to take piano lessons, a thing I continue to do today. I have also learned to play the cello. I have played in front of people, at concerts and successfully.
I was really lucky to have a caring family but i can't deny that for a long time my life was miserable. Although the aid helped me at first, as the time passed my impairment got worse and the aid was not useful after a while. I could not speak on the phone, I could not hear the door bell, I almost got killed from a car because I did not hear it coming.
When I went to the university... by that time, I was relying only on reading the lips but it was demanding.... I studied at Thessaloniki, I’m from Patras and I had to confront a whole new life living alone and a whole new bunch of people who I had to inform about my disability and it was hard.
But the hardest of all was an incident I had. I don't know if you have heard about the Golden Dawn and the crisis in Greece. Golden Dawn is a racist right party... I was working at a hospital when one of them came and I had to examine him. I didn't speak well then so he thought i was a foreigner and he made fun of me in front of everyone in the hospital. I remember myself feeling inferior.
It was that incident that made me take the decision to go on with the implant procedure. I didn't know my chances, and everybody used to tell me that I had not good chances at all to hear good again but i didn't have any other choice. I mean, I couldn't see a future... or a successful career or anything else...
But it turned around everything.. it wasn't easy because I have many allergies at many things and especially to antibiotics and after the surgery I had for two months a really bad bowel reaction. I was in a huge pain for 2 months...and then came the time for the adjustment.
My mother told me not to rely on it much. We were all ready to be disappointed..... I saw a dream the night before going to Athens to turn on the implant. I saw myself at Vatican, Italy, inside the museum... I could hear someone playing the piano, Debussy's 1st arabesque. I could hear so clearly, so beautifully. And then I walked in, I saw Michelangelo's paintings and then the piano, and it was me who was playing.
I woke up very upset and I remember I did something I never wanted to do in front of my parents. I cried. We went to Athens that morning without expecting anything...and at first I felt nothing...and then, after 1 hour, we left and got into the car and the miracle happened.... I heard the GPS from nowhere and repeated what it said to my mom. It was an amazing moment...
That specific night I went back home and played Debussy.... and i could really hear it….not that well at the beginning but it was something. It was like a heartbreak you know... but from happiness.
From then until up now, 2 years have passed and i have regained 99% at my right ear. I do not hear at the left side but I don't care... the right side is perfect. I work at the hospital as a psychiatrist, i have a relationship, I can hear the music and speak on the phone.... God gave my life back to me. And I’m grateful. I don't know how things will be at the future but I believe if one has determination and will and passion can do anything."
In a follow up Elena wrote:
"Please bear in mind that things for you, Americans are much easier... here deafness is like being a leper, everybody is looking at you as if you were some kind of a weird individual. People don't know how to help a deaf person. Here many things go wrong no matter the sun and the sea :) Never mind. I've learned to live with it. It's okay after a while. It doesn't bother me anymore."