This multi-media autobiographical post by Dr. Stephen Klusza has two parts. Here, in part 1, Stephen shares with us his journey leading up to his decision to get a cochlear implant in graduate school. Part 2 will be released in late August 2021. Part 1 includes a video with song excerpts and images that augment Stephen’s story at the bottom of this page. You can find part 2 at this link.
I was born in the most perfect year, you see.
There was nothing too special about 1978 per se, but some of my most cherished moments were only a few years away. Born in the hazy and humid throes of Florida summer, I was just another toddler trying to make sense of the world around me. Around then, my parents grew increasingly concerned when I was not attempting to talk like other kids my age, but they were assured that some kids took longer than others to communicate. When I was 2½ years old, they knew something was wrong. As they called for me from behind, I did not respond; but my eyes lit up with a wide grin when they came into view.
Can you hear me, can you hear me running? Can you hear me running, can you hear me calling you? – Mike and the Mechanics “Silent Running”
I had moderate-to-profound sensorineural hearing loss. I had had severe asthma for the first few years of my life that was resistant to treatment. A few times during my frequent hospital stays, my fevers spiked to 106-107˚ F and I was placed on top of bags of ice to save my life. It was thought that the recurrent fevers had damaged my hearing, and my parents were encouraged to fit me with hearing aids to amplify what I could hear.
Me mind on fire Me soul on fire, feeling hot, hot, hot – Buster Poindexter “Hot, Hot, Hot”
If I could describe the early years of my home in one word, it would be music. There was nary a weekend when the record player wasn’t spinning the likes of Black Sabbath, Foreigner, Jethro Tull, The Cars, Jimi Hendrix, and hundreds of other bands. Then in 1981, something happened that transformed my life completely – MTV. With my new hearing aids, I soaked in the wondrous sounds from the stereo system, and the music from MTV ‘music videos’. At such a young age, the videos rarely ever made sense and my partial hearing loss meant I never understood the lyrics, but that was never an obstacle to my appreciation of music. I heard the wide-ranging melodies of 80s (rock to new wave to pop); this was combined with watching the artistry of the videos painting worlds I had never seen, the expressive emotions on the singers’ faces, and the translation of stories that brought the characters’ lives into pure sound. It did not matter if I could not understand the words, the music spoke to me more than words ever could.
I hear the drums echoing tonight But she hears only whispers of some quiet conversation – Toto “Africa”
My memories of those times are not as sharp now (almost four decades ago). I still have the feeling of wonderment of all the videos that I voraciously devoured – Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”, Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer”, The Police “Wrapped Around Your Finger”, and others. I am very aware of the intoxicating bias of nostalgia, but it truly felt like a blissful, creative time. I loved watching the videos at a loud volume and bopping along to songs, such as Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”. Looking back, my mother must have been exasperated at some of the songs I became obsessed with, particularly those in which I was able to make out a few lyrics. I distinctly remember singing the chorus “multiple” times from that one-hit wonder song by Madness:
Our house, in the middle of our street Our house, in the middle of our street Our house, in the middle of our street Our house, in the middle of our… - Madness “Our House”
My love of 80s music paralleled my love of 80s movies and TV. I loved several science-themed movies that had the 80s-style poetic license in full effect, such as “Weird Science”, “My Science Project”, and “The Last Starfighter”, among others. My first exposure to the idea of college was the movie “Real Genius”, which showed extremely bright young people working on laser technology — which blew my still-developing mind. It would be many years before I could go to college, but I was already looking forward to skating on ice-covered dorm hallways, learning science, and building exciting inventions.
Gimme a new sensation In a place that has no name Something tells me I'll never be the same… - The Comsat Angels “I’m Falling”
As an adolescent, I experienced the usual share of high and low points, along with the difficulties of being a hard-of-hearing/deaf person in hearing schools. Nevertheless, I excelled in academics and began a love affair with genetics during Advanced Placement Biology in high school. All it took was my teacher Mr. Force (that was really his name!) introducing me to the Punnett Square, and I fell head over heels. I knew then that I wanted to major in Biology to become a geneticist. After graduation and a break for a couple of years, I went to graduate school to specialize in developmental genetics and become a professor of biology. The academic career path was the only one I knew at the time to do the science that I loved so dearly.
One night after working out, everything sounded off-pitch with my hearing aids on. I thought there was something wrong with them and I planned to have them checked out. Later, I woke up in the middle of the night with a splitting headache and thunderous ringing and feedback in my ears. I barely slept that night.
And I can't get it out of my head No, I can't get it out of my head Now my old world is gone for dead 'Cause I can't get it out of my head… - Electric Light Orchestra “I Can’t Get It Out Of My Head”
My way of understanding was shattered. Everything came to an absolute standstill. I lost count of the number of medical appointments that followed, and time slowed to a crawl. My mom accompanied me to one of my appointments and the doctor said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with your son”. My mom, always optimistic and full of life, became instantly deflated. I will forever remember the singular sensation in that moment of hearing the doctor’s uncertainty. It is like goose bumps, only it felt like a slow but steady wash of fluid electrocuting me. I remember the feeling of crackling, like lightning striking a strong tree and destroying it into a million shards of glowing embers. I was faced with the prospect that this was serious and potentially irreversible. Then came a creeping fear that music may forever be out of my reach from that point on. One of the most joyous parts of my life was gone. In its place, was a constant onslaught of throbbing, droning tinnitus, screeching, and roaring to an audience of one inside my head. With no relief in sight, I was no longer compatible with my body, and I was abandoned.
So it’s all come back round to breaking apart again Breaking apart like I’m made up of glass again Making it up behind my back again Holding my breath for the fear of sleep again Holding it up behind my head again Cut in deep to the heart of the bone again Round and round and round And it’s coming apart again Over and over and over - The Cure “Disintegration”
When all this happened, I was well into the fourth year of grad school. Prior to this sudden hearing loss and tinnitus, I had developed significant anxiety over my dissertation research. Grad school is often extremely stressful, and I had multiple experiments in progress at any one time. After that fateful night, I tried to go straight back to doing research and notified my mentor and lab mates that my hearing was messed up. I tried to keep up with my experiments, desperate for distraction from the severe tinnitus I was experiencing, but I started falling behind. The weekly meetings with my mentor and my camaraderie with my lab mates were strained, through no fault of their own. How do we support someone going through such a catastrophic event? How can we find new ways to communicate when the old method no longer works? Is it the right thing to do to let them be, or should we give help that is unsolicited? These are hard questions when someone is going through any significant loss and there are no right answers.
I attended lab meetings and tried my best to follow with the speech reading skills I had always used in conjunction with my hearing. At best, it was passable; at worst, I missed everything completely. I still had teaching assistantship work to carry out and carried around a dry-erase board and marker for communication. This system was fine for asking a question but was woefully inadequate for conversation. It was very isolating, and I did not know how much longer I could go on like this. I did not know sign language and even if I did, there was no one else to sign with. If I did manage to complete grad school and receive a PhD, it would take me longer than 5 years, further endangering my chances at success in academia. After working so hard and sacrificing so much to prove to the world and myself that I could make it as a hard-of-hearing person, everything seemed insurmountable.
In a little while I'll be gone The moment's already passed Yeah, it's gone And I'm not here This isn't happening I'm not here I'm not here -Radiohead "How to Disappear Completely"
I still cannot adequately describe my headspace during these events. Words failed me then, as they do now. In the movie Sound of Metal, Ruben experienced his loss by the simple fading of the crowd and the encroaching of the low, throbbing drone. My experience was more complicated than that. It would be a long time before I came across a song that stitched my disparate and fragmented memories with threads of undulating low end, trebly screeches, pulsing frequencies, and distant, indecipherable voices from the point of no return. This is not a song as most people understand them to be. This piece has traces of accidental musical notes underneath a burgeoning discord. The lyrics are crushed beyond recognition. Thanks to the kindness of Andrew Grant/The Vomit Arsonist, I have created a video of his song “no one can help you”, with the lyrics in the description (link to “No one can help you” video). Whether you wish to experience this or not, you have the choice that I never had.
Dr. Stephen Klusza is a developmental geneticist who received both his B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Biological Sciences at Florida State University and performed research in fruit fly epigenetics as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As an Assistant Professor of Biology at Clayton State University in Morrow, GA, Dr. Klusza is interested in creating accessible and equitable low/no-cost educational resources and research opportunities to increase accessibility in education for all students. He also serves as the current Chair of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee for the Genomics Education Partnership and advocates for disability representation in STEM and academia.