Sound Off

Short Story

A sudden mystery illness causes ongoing anxiety as Sasha, with the aid of medical professionals, endeavors to uncover what interferes with her hearing.

By Kevin RR Williams

Step in Time


Sasha is an acrobatic hip-hop dancer who begins each day in step with the rhythmic thump of music in her ears. Designer dancewear stretches over every curve of her physically fit body. Far from dainty, the only lace she wears is on her sneakers.

A sautéed snap pea pops in a hot skillet as eggs beat in a mixing bowl with the tap of avocado on toast. The blender spins up a loaded smoothie like R&B vinyl, with sips of percussion, while Sasha choreographs new moves.

Combining stretching, dancing, and monologue, she doesn’t disappoint tens of thousands of followers awaiting her social media posts. Exercise releases good-feeling endorphins.

After some video edits, Sasha satiates followers and leaves for a 5-mile run with earbuds blasting the latest music by favorite artists. But this morning, there is much sound distortion. Lyrics fade in and out while echoing.

Back at home, she hydrates with water before heading to the shower. With music comprising so much of her life, she has more than one pair of earbuds. But the ones she wore during her run are high quality with background noise cancellation. Sasha fishes through her technology desk for a prior year’s model with similar features and less battery life.

Cranking up the beats reveals the same distortion. She then removes the earbuds and plays earlier music through her room speakers. This is very troubling. The anomaly is not due to faulty technology. It’s within her own head! Attempting to move to the prior rhythm, she feels off beat.

Sasha is an influencer who earns money from sponsors of her social media posts. So music is not just a passionate hobby. It’s her livelihood.

Medical Evaluation

An urgent care medical facility suspects Sasha may have damaged her eardrums from playing loud music through earbuds. The doctor examines her ears for ruptures or redness. “I don’t see anything out of the ordinary. It could be temporary hyperacusis. Give your ears a rest from loud noises and schedule a followup appointment with your primary doctor. You should then have an audiologist evaluation.”

“I’ll do so immediately!”

During the next week, Sasha keeps social media followers engaged by posting comments and photos. She continues exercising without earbuds. Eagerly, she attends the scheduled medical visit.

“Are you still experiencing sound distortion?” the doctor asks while shining a light into her ear.

“Yes. I must admit. It’s frightening. Music is my life!”

“Can you describe the distortion?”

“It’s like there’s a broken speaker within my ear canal. There’s a muffled vibration that echos when ambient volume increases. Am I going deaf?”

“More tests are necessary. Empirically, it sounds like it could be eustachian tube dysfunction. It’s relatively common and usually resolves itself without treatment.”

“That’s good to hear!”

“But since your hearing is so important, it’s best to get a full workup while giving you some simple exercises that may relieve symptoms.”

“What type of exercises?”

“The eustachian tube is a small passageway that connects your throat to your middle ear. It might just be plugged. Take several deep breaths with your nostrils closed. Swallowing, yawning, or chewing gum can also help clear the passageway. I’m going to prescribe an antihistamine to see if it drains any fluid behind your eardrum.”

“If I’d known it was as simple as chewing gum, I could have cured it last week!”

“Again, I'm suggesting things to do until we have an accurate diagnosis. I’ll also prescribe an antihistamine that you can purchase over the counter at the pharmacy. Pick up your referral and prescription from the nurse at the front desk on your way out.”

Now Hear This

During the otolaryngology referral appointment, Sasha receives an audiology evaluation. The test monitors hearing loss over time. In her case, the evaluation establishes a benchmark for future testing.

“Are you certain you don’t hear an echo? It makes a difference in the diagnosis.”

“Perhaps initially—a couple of weeks ago—but now it’s more like the high and low pitch is cut off.”

“Have you had a recent cold or sinus infection?”

“No. I was feeling fine one day and began experiencing muffled hearing the next.”

“Based on your description of hearing, we may have solved the medical mystery. It seems you might be experiencing frequency loss.”

The otolaryngologist recommends a hearing aid. An implication that the condition is not transient devastates Sasha.

Second Opinion

Before getting her hearing aid, Sasha requests a second opinion from another otolaryngologist. Dr. Dylon reviews her tests and prior physician notes. There is generally a tendency to concur. But he asks Sasha key questions and performs different tests.

“Don’t view an assisted hearing device as diminishing your quality of life. Entertainers wear similar technology on stage during live performances.”

“If it’s necessary, I’ll comply. But the onset was so sudden, I just want to make certain nothing is being overlooked.”

“I totally understand. There are some discrepancies in your description of sound I want to focus on. You mentioned at one time an echo. Has that gone away completely or is it intermittent?”

“I’m getting used to a new way of hearing so my descriptions may not always be spot on. The sound distortion with echo varies.”

“Let’s try a few things. Cup your right hand and cover your ear. That’s it. Turn your head so your left ear is facing me. Is your hearing more clear or are there any echoes?”

“There’s less distortion but it’s still not totally clear.”

“Do the same with the other ear. This time, covering your left ear while pointing your right towards me. Is that better, worse, or the same?”

“It’s still not perfect, but better.”

“That’s fine. Cupping your hand does not block all ambient sounds. Rapidly rubbing the fingerprints of his index finger and thumb together produces a soft sound. He does this near each ear and asks can I hear it.”

“It’s very soft. But I can only hear it in my left ear.”

“I want to perform an ear rinse to remove possible wax buildup.”

Following the cleansing, Sasha’s hearing improves!

“That’s much better! This is fine without a hearing aid. You mean all I had to do was clean my ears?”

“I don’t recommend sticking small objects into your ear canal. Our ears have a self-cleaning feature. They progressively shed excess wax, while retaining some as a filter. People who frequently wear ear buds can sometimes block natural wax discharge—leading to a buildup. This and loud sounds can cause a variation of pitch between ears, called diplacusis.”

“So is your recommendation that I stop wearing ear buds?”

“My recommendation is to protect your hearing with volume moderation.”

In harmony with the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the doctor advises avoiding situations where you need to shout to be heard and lowering the volume when listening to music. Sasha adapts well, while resuming her dance video posts.

The End

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