As soon as I woke up, I knew something was wrong. The room was spinning violently; I couldn’t lift my head from the floor. My worst hangover minus the alcohol. I could hear a swooshing sound like when you hold a seashell to your ear – and that was all. It was meant to be a typical summer day in Perth, nothing out of the ordinary planned; it turned out to be a vast detour from the journey I had mapped out.
A barrage of tests and scans revealed the absence of a tumour or stroke, I felt momentarily grateful, then came the diagnosis. A virus had destroyed a significant amount of my hearing, and that was that! I was left with a small amount of hearing on one side only.
Four weeks on an intravenous drip to curb vertigo and going slightly crazy due to the tinnitus (seashells on steroids!) I had plenty of time to ponder the question: what next?
It wasn’t the first time that my body had sent me a signal that changed my direction
I collapsed at 19 and was diagnosed with a heart defect called Wolff Parkinson White Syndrome. At that time, the surgical interventions for the condition were risky. My heart had an electrical abnormality resulting in life-threatening heart rhythms. Despite long-term medication, there were increasingly frequent trips to the hospital. I was fed up being a frequent flyer at Perth’s emergency departments, so I finally opted for the (now, much safer) surgical intervention. I had a total of five heart procedures to fix the problem. Dr Anne Powell is Perth based and specialises in electrophysiology of the heart. She gave me the freedom to not have to plan the route to the nearest emergency department every time I stepped out of the house.
It didn’t seem right that I’d gotten over one debilitating condition only to acquire another one.
But that’s life. It’s not fair. It gives on the one hand and takes on the other.
As a specialist neonatal intensive care nurse and a midwife for over 20 years, I was facing the reality that it was no longer safe or practical to work in the high tech area of intensive care. I was also the wrong side of 40 and couldn’t get my head around a new career at that age.
After I lost my hearing, I became isolated, withdrawn and frustrated
I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to find meaningful work. I avoided social situations as I felt embarrassed about how my deafness impacted my ability to listen, concentrate and communicate. Having a hearing impairment is an invisible disability – until it happened to me I didn’t realise how debilitating it is. People speak louder – yell in your ear or talk in patronising tones – deafness does not mean stupid.
A chance meeting with WA’s leading hearing expert, Professor Gunesh Rajan, was the start of my transformational journey. I was invited to take part in his research trial, and I was given the amazing gift of a cochlear implant. Neural plasticity is a fascinating phenomenon. It took hundreds of hours and practice, patience and support from the research team. My progress was slow, tiring and frustrating. The initial sounds I got from the device can only be described as a scratching noise, not even human! Then gradually, I learned to recognise a syllable, a word, a sentence. I became interested in the art of public speaking. I was spending a lot of time practicing sounding out words and listening to the weird way I sounded to myself.
I also reconnected with my passion for storytelling
It became the way I retrained my brain to hear again. I grew up on stories. Back in the days before the internet (we didn’t have a colour TV until Dad brought one home as a treat so we could watch the Montreal Olympics in 1976), storytelling was a big part of my family.
I decided that I wanted to speak, serve and share with the world and in telling my stories I wanted to empower others to do so. In 2014, I took the plunge and embarked on professional speaking career. I’m still bringing life into the world in a different format. I’m known as The Story Midwife, helping leaders globally to create powerful presentations with compelling business stories.
I knew when I started my business that I wanted to do more than make a profit, I wanted to make a difference. So I created a ‘for purpose’ project called Stories From The Heart™, which is now a regular live storytelling event and recently a book, with a keen following dubbed the Story Tribe.
Since the beginning, we’ve raised over $10,000 for charity. HeartKids is a charity that help kids, teens and adults affected by congenital health disease in Australia, this charity was an obvious choice – hearts being such a consistent theme throughout my own story.
An incredible transformation takes place when people share a story
Whenever someone opens their heart and tells their tale, there will be others in the audience who can relate to it, then feel empowered to step-up and share their own story. While I love being on-stage as a speaker, I get a real buzz out of empowering others to step onto the stage to share theirs.
I am not the hero of this story. Dr Anne Powell and Professor Rajan, two incredible professionals who dedicate their lives to help others, are the ones who gave me the heart and the sound that has allowed me to take what has been the most exciting detour of my life.