Little girl in a hospital ward looking at spring greens through the window and waiting for her parents to come

When a Recent Appointment Triggered Memories of My Childhood With a Cleft Palate


It has been some time since I visited an otolaryngologist. I felt this kind of doctor was one I could leave in my past. I had thought about it when making the appointment and then the thoughts of childhood came rushing back to me, again, a week before the appointment. A week before, all I could think of was the possibility of an audiology exam. I was sure to have one as I wrote in the preliminary paperwork that I had a perforated left eardrum. Quickly, while in that headspace a week before the visit, I zoomed back into the past. I revisited these memories many times in the days approaching the doctor’s appointment.

As a child, I remember the audiologist and all her headphones, the sound proof door, a window between me and her, a puppet that she made dance around and light up, whether I got the hand signal to her right or wrong. I remember the painful headphones, some that pinched behind my ears, while an additional set, or sets, were placed on my ears. I sometimes had a hard time keeping my head up and would worry if these head contraptions would slide of my head. The final thing was always, what must have been, the pressure meter that went into the ear canal. I hated that feeling. I also didn’t care for when air was blown into my ears, nor did I like the final graph showing my hearing loss in the left, perforated drum. The frown-shaped curve on the paper among the boxes always upset me and made me feel “less than” in some small way. A way that only added on to the pain of the disfigurement I saw when I looked in the mirror at a big, slouched nose, paired with scar beneath it from a bilateral cleft lip and palate and the holes that lie below.

After the audiology exam, it was time for the waiting room, again, to wait for the doctor. I would do this routine every summer well into my early teenage years. He was a man with a thick Scottish accent. Many times it was not that I could not hear him, but rather that I could not understand him. He was a very good man, as were all the doctors on my team. The best and the brightest of a time when they were just beginning to understand what cleft lip and palate meant and how best to treat it. He, too, would look in my ears, put tweezers in my ears, blow air in my ears, and look inside my mouth. My notorious gag reflex was, and is, still a problem today. Nothing can really go up to the center of the top of the palate without my oral defensiveness kicking in. All routine visits went this way until my teens.

Special visits, or “non-routine” visits would be more involved. Specifically, I remember sitting outside the office alone, at age five or six, after having finished an appointment with him. My mother stood with him in the examination room talking to him about the impending pharyngeal flap surgery to be conducted by my plastic surgeon and him.

I felt so alone in that moment, knowing they were discussing me, knowing something would happen to me that would not be pleasant, and thus was not for my ears to hear at this time.

It is amazing how a feeling can be so imprinted upon you for all of eternity.

I will be well past 90 years of age before I forget that moment of being — both physically and mentally — alone.

Later in middle school, the otolaryngologist wanted to try and graft the perforated eardrum. The perforation was a result of many, many ear infections during my infant through elementary school years. The graft did not take. I was 13 years old at the time. I had difficulty coming out of the anesthesia because it was both administered through gaseous vapors and intravenous drip. On top of the high levels of anesthesia in my system, the recovery nurse (must have) administered some narcotic.

All these drugs combined in my small body and suppressed my breathing, leading to a near death experience I would not wish on my worst enemy. I gasped for breath and then sunk back into the sweet, seductive slumber only to force myself to breathe again by sheer will power. I fought hard breathing like this for what seemed like hours. I could not see anything, my vision blurred from contracted pupils. I could hear my mom, father, aunt, and nurse during those times that I would fight my way to the surface of pool in which I was drowning. I could hear the hope, and feel it too, in the form of a device they kept shoving at my lips and telling me to blow into so the large beads would then respond from the weak wind coming from my lungs. Then I would gasp their desired inhalation of misty oxygen from a mask that lay beside my face. All this for a skin graft that did not take inside my left ear. The hope was that it would heal the eardrum.

Fast forward to present day, where I trod the well-worn path. I begin in the waiting room. Then I had the audiology exam, followed by another visit to the waiting room, then back into an exam room to see the doctor. Today my hearing is still the same. The graph shows the same frown for the left ear. The doctor concludes what I already know to be true. There is not much that I can do about my ears, hearing, paired with constricted Eustachian tubes, and the maze-like sinuses. Yes, chronic sinusitis is another by-product of my formerly palate. The doctor goes on to say that surgery, at this time, would only be 50 percent effective compared to a non-cleft born individual. “No surgery is needed,” he says, “Just keep those sinuses irrigated daily,” was his advice.

And so, off I went, back in to the summer sun, as I had so many times before.

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