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My Ear Exploded

A few hours before my eardrum broke open, I had a personal revelation:

I am weak and fragile and tired of medical surprises.

I was home from work due to a lingering cough when a sudden and sharp pain bit into my left inner ear. The pain confused me; one moment ago I had no complaints, now it felt like someone lodged an ice pick into my skull.

How could this much pain show up without explanation?

Normally I ignore medical issues for a month or so while I collect data: When does it hurt? How much does it hurt? Can I ignore the pain?

But this intense pain changed me from one who ignores medical smoke signals to one who grabbed my keys, pocketed my insurance card and raced for my car: I needed medical attention.

My car idled in the driveway while I considered a rhetorical question:

Is this an emergency situation? If I am able to drive my car to the ER, and walk myself into the emergency room, is it truly an emergency?

Not knowing the answer, I pointed my car towards an Urgent Care center a few miles away.

I checked in to the center with my left hand pressed firmly against my left ear as if I were keeping the pain from leaking out, infecting others and taking over the world.

I was told there was a one hour wait and that I should sit in my car.

I did.

While waiting, I called my friend Jessica and we talked about pain, ear pain, the best Urgent Care (She wasn't a fan of the one I was at...) and Deb's birthday lunch.

I returned to the reception desk at the end of that first 60 minutes only to be sent away for another half hour, then another with two more 30-minute promises to come.

I stood before the reception desk, my hand holding my ear, and asked if they were letting other people in before me.


I told them that I was in considerable pain.

The secretary said that she could tell.

Was she suggesting that I was a good actress?

It wasn’t until my three-hour wait was up and I was walking to my examination room with what felt like a migraine in my ear, that I understood the lack of empathy: they thought I was drug seeking.

Opioid addiction is an ongoing issue here in upstate, New York.

The nurse practitioner (NP) was a young, fit woman who smiled a small, welcoming smile and asked why I was there.

Odd that she didn’t lead her questioning with, “Let me guess, ear pain?”

After examining my ear, she suggested that the pain was from ear wax and tried to send me home with some wax-dissolving drops.

If they can make wax-dissolving drops, why can’t they make ear-pain-dissolving-drops?

Was she too busy to tap into a real medical diagnosis? Are there times when ear wax hurts? Does ear wax have teeth? Claws?

I gritted my teeth and asked her to please remove the ear wax.

She agreed with a smile and a nod and called for a nurse to do the horror procedure.

He flushed my ear with a solution of water and peroxide with what looked like a clear ketchup bottle.

The pain doubled; I didn’t pass out.

He kept working on that sore ear until a measly piece of wax surrendered.

When the nurse practitioner looked into my ear canal again, she changed her tune: “Seriously bad ear infection, bulging eardrum, water behind the eardrum.”

She looked again, then added, “This must really hurt.”

I grunted in agreement, but in my head I noted that she was using a weak adverb in a medical office. In my near delirium state of pain, I tried to weigh whether the stress of her poor vocabulary intensified my pain or distracted me from it.

When I taught middle school Literacy, I had to outlaw the word “Really” from my students’ writing because they dropped that word before every verb. I tired of suggesting alternatives. Really hungry. (Starving) Really tired. (Exhausted.) Really happy. (Excited.)

The word ‘Because’ was also forbidden from their writing.

My students roared in fury that I removed a word that they already knew how to spell.

One girl said, “The word ‘Because’ is in the dictionary. Why can’t we use it?”

I shrugged my shoulders and answered, “Because.”

The class sat quietly, waiting for more.

Oh, I knew that feeling. I felt that same loss of understanding every time I read that word as an explanation in their writing.

The argumentative girl turned towards her classmates and said, “She has a point.”

As the nurse practitioner wrote out a script for antibiotics, I wondered if it would be rude to buy her a thesaurus so she could grow her vocabulary.

Maybe she could make lists of words from uncomfortable to excruciating to punctuate her compassionate remarks.

Okay, that was mean. She was doing her best. She diagnosed the problem. I should be grateful that she figured it out.

(That’s the kind of mean that I am: I think about buying someone a thesaurus.)

The NP gave me a script for antibiotics and told me to seek help if it got worse.

I had no idea what ‘worse’ meant. More pain?

It didn’t occur to me to read through the ten pages of material that was printed along with my medical summary. On those pages it warned that if any fluid seeps out of your ear to seek emergency medical attention right away.

Every time liquid dripped from my ear, I thought it was the solution the nurse had used to flush out the wax.

I was patient.

Every time I put my hand up to my ear, it came away wet. I carried paper towels around to dry my weeping ear.

I slept with a towel over my pillow as the ear dripped. Dripped. Dripped.

A few days after the dripping started, I contacted my doctor’s office for an appointment. I fully expecting my doctor to answer my plea with a terse, “You have to give the antibiotics time to work.”

I left a message at 6:30 AM and called back a few hours later and didn’t leave a message, and then called again and didn’t leave a message. Then called again and listened to the recorded message and wrote down the phone number to send an urgent text to the doctor.

I reworked the text for ten minutes until I was sure it had all of the important information, without being too dramatic or needy.

When the secretary returned my call eight hours after I left the first message, she said, “I didn’t think you were a patient here anymore.”

That wasn’t the welcome I was expecting.

The secretary said, “And anyway, she can’t see you till next week.”

“But. Why? I need…. Really?”


She added, “The doctor said that you should go back to the Urgent Care if you need help.”

Was the doctor mad at me for not calling her first? Wasn’t she interested in seeing my dripping ear for herself? Had she not even an ounce of curiosity?

I sat in front of my fireplace and stared into the flames.

Now what?

If the doctor doesn’t think it’s a problem, should I give the antibiotics more time?

A new friend called. I automatically held the phone up to my sore ear.

Nothing. I couldn’t hear a thing.

I moved the phone over to my other ear to hear Tania saying, “I’m in your driveway. I brought you some copies of the article about you in the newspaper. Can I come in?”

I explained why I was holding my hand over my ear and after listening, she suggested I go to the other Urgent Care on the other side of town where there was a doctor on staff.

So I did.

The doctor entered the room and asked what I needed help with. He was a tall, thin man and about ten years older than I was. I couldn’t tell what country he was born in, maybe India?

I mumbled something about my ear hurting.

He stood looking at my hurt ear for a moment, then asked when the liquid started.

I told him it had been two days, but that I thought it was from the ear wash they used at the other Urgent Care.

I worried that he would think that I had nothing better to do than visit Urgent Care medical centers.

He held up an instrument and looked down my ear canal. When he pulled it away from my ear, the instrument was covered in a thick, yellowish goo.

He hid any dismay that that tool would now have to be taken apart and scrubbed. Did he have a spare just in case the next patient needed an ear check tonight?

I was relieved that he didn’t call me irresponsible for the goop. Maybe I should have washed out my ear before I came in?

The doctor lined up some Q-tips and used one after the other to dry my ear. Using Q-tips to dry my ear was like using a towel to empty a bathtub.

“I’ve had four doses of the antibiotic.” I said, then braced myself for the admonishment that I needed to wait for the medicine to work.

“Your eardrum is broken.” He said while he arranged the soiled Q-tips into a neat row.

Maybe that would explain the pain. So much pain.

“Will I have trouble hearing?” I asked.

He continued cleaning out my ear. “A specialist will have to evaluate that.”

I almost said, “What?” but not because I couldn’t hear him, but because I needed time to process what he was saying.

Maybe I would suffer hearing loss.

Are we talking about a permanent disability? Would I need a hearing aid?

He said I needed to see a specialist tomorrow.

Tears sprang from my eyes. I told him that my doctor couldn’t see me until next week, how could I find a specialist to see me tomorrow?

He stopped cleaning out my ear, looked at my tears and softened his voice, “My friend is an ENT. He will see you tomorrow.”

The miracle of him helping me get an appointment changed my hysteria to shock. I thanked him and then thanked him again.

He nodded absentmindedly as if my gratitude embarrassed him.

Before I left he said to me, “I want you to go home tonight and get a good night’s rest. You have nothing to worry about. Tomorrow you will be in good hands.”

Note to self: Ask my insurance company if I can make this Urgent Care doctor my primary doctor.

Note to inner critic: I know he doesn’t have a medical practice, but I wish he did.

As I showered the next morning, I turned my head to the side and filled my sore ear with water, then leaned the other way to pour the water out. I did this again and again until the water coming out was clear.

The ENT specialist was a soft-spoken man around the same age as his friend who referred me. He told me he was going to vacuum out my ear with a small instrument.

I was greatly relieved that he didn’t insist that I learn how to vacuum my own ear canal. I could imagine myself sitting in front of a mirror while I plugged in the tiny vacuum and tried to figure it out.

He let me know that the machine would sound very loud and there would be pain, but he wouldn’t damage anything.

He reached into a drawer and pulled out a long, thin metal tube that was bent at a 45-degree angle.

I’ve always had a high tolerance for pain, so I wasn’t worried about the discomfort.

He fit the tube into my ear.

I wondered if my friend Sonia, who collects miniature doll houses, would like to outfit my ear canal with little sofas and rugs now that the floors were going to be cleaned for the first time in my life.

I wondered if the specialist would find something unusual in my ear, maybe something I put in there as a child. A pea? A grain of rice?

I was lost in thought when there was an enormous buzzing inside my ear that sounded like an old airplane from the 1920s was about to crash.

I jumped.

He removed the vacuum and told me that I must sit still.

“I could hear it!” I told him. My smile grew bigger. “I can hear!”

“Yes. Yes.” He smiled as he repositioned the vacuum.

As he vacuumed, the sound grew louder.

I worried that all those years of wearing ear plugs at concerts to protect my ears from loud sounds was being undone right here. I went from relief in being able to hear, to imagining I would go deaf from the treatment.

I decided to meditate. Detach from what was going on.

When the vacuum scraped against the infection, the pain caused my whole body to flinch as I yelled out in pain.

“That’s okay.” The doctor said, removing the vacuum. “It’s not your fault. It’s your body’s natural response.”

I gritted my teeth and let him dig around in the infection so he could get that goop out of there during what became a long, long few minutes.

I wanted to tell him that it was okay if my ear canal was a little messy; a few cobwebs are fine with me.

The dance between a buzzing sound and intense pain wore on me. I jumped. I shouted. I bit my tongue.

I told him that I wasn’t as tough as I thought I was.

He sat back in his chair and said, “The fact that you are still sitting in this chair shows me that you are very tough.”

I held my breath as he got back to work.

After a while he mopped up the goop that had leaked out of my ear and said that we were done with that part of the visit.

Hopefully I would never see another ear vacuum.

He held up a tuning fork that was over a foot long. He tapped the fork against the table, then held it next to my ear.

“Yes.” I laughed. “I can hear it.”

He reminded me that we had to wait for the ear to heal before we could evaluate sound sensitivity. He said that I must keep the ear dry at all times.

Maybe I shouldn’t have rinsed it out in the shower?

He said he would see me again in ten days so he could vacuum out any remaining liquid in the ear.

Since my ear canal had never been vacuumed before, it seemed excessive to vacuum it every ten days.

But that’s just the pain talking; I was willing to do whatever it took to heal my ear and hear again.




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Apr 03, 2023
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