It’s the afternoon of January 13 and my sons Owen and James are playing video games after finishing their homework, like they usually do, leaning into each other side by side on the couch. I’ve just come back from taking our dog, a little white rescue pooch, for her routine afternoon walk, wandering the lazy loop around our suburban neighborhood in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. Dinner preparations are well underway, a crockpot dish with chicken. According to a text from my wife, she’ll be home from work about 5:15, right on time. As I bend to towel off my dog’s feet, everything is unfolding in the universe of Neil Connelly exactly as it should be. Then my older son says, “Hey Dad. The phone rang.”
In the kitchen, the red light on the phone atop the microwave is flashing. It’s only my imagination that makes it seem urgent. When I lift it, still unsuspecting, and tap the button for caller ID, the display reads, “WA HEIGHTS MED.” It’s the number of my family doctor, indicating a call I was told not to expect for several days. The Cat Scan of my brain was just this morning—8:45 at Holy Spirit Hospital Imaging Center. The technician, like my doctor, told me to look for a call in three or four days. Now here is a red light message flashing for me, just eight hours later. It feels suddenly like I’m holding not a phone but a hand grenade, and I’m not sure if the pin is in or not.
Moments like this, when you reach an intersection in life, are common to us all. We move from scene to scene, from complication to complication, endlessly rising and falling on our own Freytag’s Pyramid. Maybe from my training as a fiction writer, I’ve always felt a little attuned to these episodes, when an inciting incident could signal a major plot twist that no one saw coming.
To be honest though, I didn’t have this sense at all nearly a month before that phone call came. I’d made an appointment to see my family doctor because of some persistent ringing in my ears. I’d noticed the ringing sporadically for some time, mostly after I shut off my car engine following the 45-minute commute to the university where I teach. The shrill piercing followed me across the parking lot but dissipated as I climbed the three flights to my office. Then at night, after I turned the TV off, the whistle began to shriek again. Little by little, I found that when I entered a silent room, the noise returned. Or rather, I became aware of it. What had happened over time was the ringing had become omnipresent, masked to me by other sounds to various degrees, but ultimately a constant in my world. I had lost the concept of silence.
A quick stop at Google, the universal best solution to earning an instant medical degree, reacquainted me with the word tinnitus, something I hear Pete Townsend suffers from, among others. There’s apparently very little in terms of treatment. Some sites held out the promise of impacted earwax, stray hairs in the ear canal, but most focused on what was called “masking” and spoke in terms not of a cure but of “management.” Lots of sound machines, hearing aides, meditation, even yoga. This consensus was confirmed by my brother, himself an actual doctor with an actual medical degree. Despite the absence of options, a trip to the family practitioner seemed called for. Without notifying my wife, an appointment was scheduled.
I like my doctor. She actually trained under my brother as an osteopath, so we have that connection. She’s no-nonsense, listens in a straight forward and unembarrassed way to the intimate bodily details that accompany most medical conversations, and she’s fairly laid back. For example, she has a charming habit of scolding me at my annual physical (paid for and required by my state university medical insurance.) She insists that a healthy male of my age need only come in every other year. When I go to see her, I feel like a man bringing his car to get inspected six months early.
So with just a little trepidation, a week before Christmas, in a bland exam room at Washington Heights Medical, I explained my symptoms to Dr. Pauline Kostelac. I told her the sound was louder in my left ear, and that it had been waking me most nights at about 3 o’clock. She quickly ruled out impacted earwax and moved swiftly to a recommendation of a consult with an ENT specialist. Ah yes, I thought, a specialist is surely called for, good. A specialist is just the thing, and one that comes with an impressive acronym too. An ENT will save the day.
Following her physical exam, she sat down and pulled out a clipboard, then clicked her pen and rattled off some questions without making eye contact. No, I was not in any pain. No, I did not suffer headaches. No, I did not experience any muscle weakness. No, I didn’t feel dizzy. Wait. Say the last one again.
Photo by Riccardo Cuppini