Waxing Lyrical

In which The Author can’t hear clearly now

As a youngster I was especially prone to otorhinolaryngeal infections. (The spell check in Firefox doesn’t like that word, but I’ve been keen on it since I first started selling medical textbooks.) It’s the posh word for Ear, Nose & Throat, three parts of the human body linked by mysterious passages known only to the medical profession and the Generator of Organic Diversity.
I think I spent a disproportionate part of my childhood with lumps of cotton wool in my ears, or taking Penbritin (a creamy pink medicine containing Pencillin) to combat one or other sore throat. In late Victorian times, I’d have epitomised the classic literary cliché, the Sickly Child. Come to think of it, that could explain why, in late Elizabethan times, I resemble a consumptive adult.
When I was about eight or nine, I underwent a tonsillectomy. The plan was to cure once and for all my propensity to acquire respiratory tract infections. It didn’t work, although I doubt if my feeble immune system was entirely responsible. I’m going to attribute at least some of the blame to this monstrosity:
The Phurnacite Plant, Abercwmboi. (Photo courtesy of my good friend Mark Williams)
The Phurnacite Plant, Abercwmboi.
(Photo courtesy of my good friend Mark Williams)
When my contemporaries and I were growing up, the Phurnacite Plant dominated the valley floor a few miles to the south. Its purpose was to manufacture ‘smokeless fuel’ from coal, mainly for consumption in the south-east of England. The actual chemical process must have been fairly simple – Londoners got the fuel, we got the smoke! Its foul sulphurous reek would often shroud the entire valley, especially on autumn and winter mornings. If we got it bad, three or four miles away, the people of Abercwmboi, Aberaman, Cwmbach, and Mountain Ash were right in the firing line. It’s a wonder that half the valley hasn’t been diagnosed with COPD (or worse) by now.
Anyway, I (or my respiratory system) still bear the scars of that early childhood frailty. Every year, without fail, I start coughing at around Hallowe’en and keep going until at least Easter. I’m used to it now, especially when I go from one room to another. The change in temperature and/or humidity seems to trigger off a coughing fit. My GP sent me for a chest X-ray a few years ago, as he was concerned that it might betoken something more serious. The X-ray came back clear, which was a relief. I’ve never smoked, but Dad and a lot of my friends were heavy smokers. Back in the days when one could happily light up in the pub, I must have taken a fair share of passive smoke on board along with my my beer. My friends think it’s highly amusing, of course, as I cough my lungs up every time I go to the toilet in the pub – for no obvious reason. If it had been a smoker’s cough, I wouldn’t complain!
My nose is permanently blocked as well. If I’d bothered to have it checked it out after the run-in with a lunatic outside the pub one night (see Motorcycle Emptiness), it might well have been broken in the scuffle. It’s nearly twenty years too late to do anything about it now, of course. Anyway, it keeps my glasses in place, so I’ll leave it alone for the time being.
Which brings me to my ears. The first time I had them syringed, I was about fifteen. Dr Nawaz, our GP in Trecynon, carried out the procedure himself. Dr Nawaz was one of those characters who, if one wrote him into a sitcom, nobody would believe. He came from Afghanistan, and belonged to one of the powerful tribal groups who’d dominated the country before the Soviet invasion of 1979. He was a terrific doctor, and really knew his stuff. He was the first person to come up with a possible diagnosis for a member of my family, who’d been going fruitlessly from specialist to specialist for years. He was also a raging pisshead, and was banned for drink-driving at least once. It’s pretty safe to say he was a non-observing Muslim.
Anyway, I’d become aware that the acuity of hearing in my right ear had diminished. Dr Nawaz checked them both out, prescribed me some drops, and a week or so later I returned to the surgery. He alternately squirted warm water into my ear canal, and then sucked it back out, drawing the softened wax out into a tray which I was holding against the side of my head. I think even he was amazed by the sheer quantity of wax which he removed from the right one.
He showed me the resulting cast of my middle ear and announced gleefully, ‘It is a plug!’
I told him he didn’t need to shout. He hadn’t shouted. I could hear again.
My left ear wasn’t as bad, but we still collected a substantial quantity of wax from it before I went home. I was able to hear a pin drop. The traffic sounded unbelievably loud as I walked down the hill, and the rattle of dishes after tea was quite distasteful to my new-found supersense.
I’ve had the procedure done several times subsequently, most recently at our GP’s other surgery in Aberaman. The apparatus has changed. The old manual pump has been superseded by an electric pump with a narrow tube attached. It squirts water into the ear canal, up and over the wax plug, and forces it out under hydraulic pressure. It was a lot more pleasant, and I was quite looking forward to having it done again this morning.
You see, for the past few months I’ve been conscious of yet another wax build-up in my right ear. I kept putting off making an appointment, as I knew the practice nurse would be busy with flu jabs through the winter. Last Thursday, though, I woke up and was completely deaf in my left ear. That worried me. I hadn’t thought my left ear was as bad as the other one. Suddenly – quite literally overnight – it had leap-frogged into first place. I went straight to Boots in Aberdare and bought a bottle of their own brand ear wax softener/remover. After that, I called into the surgery and made an appointment to see the nurse for syringing.
I figured that a week’s treatment with the drops would lay the groundwork for a nice blast with lukewarm water. Indeed, every morning I was able to collect a fair deposit of wax from my right ear on some tissue paper. Strangely, there was little or nothing from the left one. By now the only thing I could hear on that side was hissing, with the occasional whistle to break the monotony. I became worried that, wherever the wax was, it was stubbornly resisting any attempt to evict it.
Using the drops themselves is a very strange experience, and if you’ve never tried it, you’ve got a treat in store. It’s best to put them in when you’re lying down, so that they penetrate the wax under gravity’s influence. Initially, all you’re aware of is a slight tickle as the liquid makes its way into the start of the ear canal.
Image taken from Williams, P.L., Warwick, R., Dyson, M., Bannister, L.H. (1989) Gray’s Anatomy (37th ed.) (Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.)
(Yes, I did find it on the shelf of Aberdare Library!)
[A digression: Last time I had it done, the nurse pointed out an interesting fact. My ear canals slope upwards throughout their length, rather than up and then down. She’s never come across anyone with that characteristic before. Maybe it’s my special mutation. I’m Ear Canal Man – possibly of even less use in a fight than Sciatigirl would have been (see That’s Really Super, Supergirl.)]
Anyway, once the liquid gets inside, the fun really gets going. It starts to work its magic, making its way through the solid wax. If you had an otoscope and some time-lapse film, the result would probably look like someone peeing in the snow – only very, very slowly! Of course, I’m just imagining what it would look like. The only sensation you really get is that of a low-frequency rumbling, like a hugely speeded-up audio recording of an earthquake being played back.
While this miniature tectonic shift is going on internally, it’s actually quite enjoyable. Then the liquid penetrates a little further and we enter the next phase – the crackling and popping as the wax is dissolved. Now the tickling comes back as the leading edge of the liquid bores deeper and deeper towards the tympanic membrane – the eardrum itself.
After a week or so of this nightly, rather odd, self-inflicted sensory deprivation (kinky note: combine it with a blackout hood and it’s a very interesting turn-on!), you’re ready for the practice nurse’s tender ministrations. Which is the condition I was in at 1045 this morning. However, this morning was rather different. Alison looked in my left ear with the otoscope and found no wax at all. Not a sausage. She asked me if I’d put anything into my ear, like a cotton bud. I’d put a pad of cotton wool in last night to keep the liquid from running over my pillow, but nothing else. She looked again and had trouble seeing my eardrum at all. She asked me if I’d had any sudden trauma to the side of my head. Again, no. (Or, at least, not knowingly. As Rhian E. has just pointed out, I was rather inebriated last week. It’s possible that something happened on the way home. I’d be the last to know.)
By now I was worried. Alison turned her attention to my right ear. She managed to extract a small amount of wax, but made little headway otherwise. She told me that the bulk of the wax is packed in like glue. I’ve got to go to the chemist this afternoon for a second lot of drops, and then return in a week for Phase II.
Meanwhile, a week today I’m seeing Dr Ahmed to discuss my sudden hearing loss on one side. If it’s tinnitus, it’s come on totally out of the blue and for no apparent reason. It’s extremely uncomfortable and not a little embarrassing, especially if you’re in a noisy environment and people are trying to talk to you.
Even listening to the radio is a bit of a trial now, so I’ve been mostly reading instead this week. I had to leave Martin H. in the pub the other afternoon, as I couldn’t hear him over the jukebox and the loud conversation by the window. Helen R. called me from across the main square in town the other day, and I really couldn’t tell which direction the sound was coming from. It’s very disconcerting.
Mind you, there are small compensations. Last Friday was my honorary nephew Jared’s 18th birthday, and there was a party in Elliot’s. I didn’t know that his family had arranged for High Voltage to play. They’re a very talented bunch of musicians and an extremely noisy bastard, who play AC/DC covers exclusively.
I’ve never been a fan of AC/DC, to say the least. The first time I saw them play, in the Rock in Aberaman, the girl I was sitting with asked me if they were playing a song they’d already done. I said, ‘To be honest, I thought they were all the same song.’ I’ve always summed up their history as ‘Forty years, eighteen albums, three chords, two singers, zero talent.’ I really knew I couldn’t endure a whole evening of very basic heavy rock music, especially feeling as miserable as I was. I wished Jared many happy returns, had a quick chat with his parents and his gran (who’s unwell at the moment), took advantage of the buffet, finished my pint in the pool room, then made my excuses and left just after the band started their set.
On the way out I met some of Jared’s mates, who were highly impressed by my resumé of AC/DC’s career. Oddly enough, the music sounded much better when I could only hear less than half of it.

One thought on “Waxing Lyrical”

  1. Please could I speak to you about what you have written regarding the Phurnacite plant? there was a great deal written about the ill effects on employees and their fight for justice but what about the residents who must have been harmed by their constant exposures too. Is there anyway we can speak privately about this issue?

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