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My First Sounds
Ellen Roth, deaf for 41 years, recipient of cochlear implants at age 43

I grew up in New York City, and on September 11 I was living with my sister about five blocks from the World Trade Center. We saw the towers get hit, we saw people jumping, we saw people covered with all that white ash. And everywhere we went, everyone was talking, and I couldn't hear their reactions, and that made me so angry. No one wanted to make the effort to talk to me because there was too much going on. My sister felt part of things, though. I didn't like that.

One day she said, "Why don't you get a cochlear implant?" I thought she was teasing, but she wasn't. Time went on, and I continued to think about it. And a year after 9/11, I got the implants.

Being able to hear was very odd at first. Everything sounded like computers, or robots, and I thought there must have been some mistake. For a year, my audiologist made adjustments. It was like I was a baby. I was hearing everything, but it made no sense. I had to learn what speech sounded like.

The first time I heard music, I cried. All my life, hearing people had told me they couldn't live without music. So I went to Tower Records, put on a pair of headphones, and listened to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was pretty awesome. I just listened again and again. Then hip-hop, electronica, jazz, classical, rock 'n' roll, country! I spent four hours there. I didn't want to leave.

I had a dog, a certified hearing dog. When someone came to the door or called my name, he would alert me. His name was Hurray. At the age of 13, he became deaf himself. He was a toy poodle, about ten pounds, very portable. He was my dog for 171/2 years, and he passed away two years ago. Anyway, after the implants, I heard Hurray for the first time. It turned out he had three different barks: one when I got home, when he was excited; the second when he had to go to the bathroom; the third when I was leaving—he was depressed! He didn't want me to leave!

I discovered that he snored when he slept on my lap.

Before the implants, when I walked Hurray, I would of course see people. Now I could hear them say "Good morning." I thought, "Oh, they talk to me!" And I realized that was probably why people used to be so stone-faced with me—they must have thought I was ignoring them. Now it's so precious to be able to connect.

On the other hand, the big thing I realized is that people talk too much! All day long, they talk about nothing!

Little things surprised me, too. A person breathing hard makes a sound. In my apartment, I can hear the woman upstairs walking around. When I cook, I can hear the sauce bubbling, the toaster popping up. And I've stopped slurping soup. I have deaf friends, and I can hear the sounds they make when they eat; it's like, "Okay, guys, you're making some noise here...."

Not long after getting the implants, while driving my car, I heard this eeeee sound. It cost me $30 to have the brake pads changed. I told the mechanic, "You know, I had to pay a lot more before." And he said, "You destroyed your rotors, that's why." I guess deaf people lose out a lot on that brake-pad warranty.

At the time I got the implants, I also went back to school. For ten years, I'd been a vocational rehabilitation administrator. Now I'm a rabbinical student and a senior vice president at a company that produces videos using American Sign Language. I want to become a Kabbalah counselor. I want to understand everything.

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