“To this day I still have no idea what he said. If I had to pick a moment when my hearing loss really crushed me, it was that moment.”
At just 13-years old, a game of water polo changed Nicholas (Nick) Linton’s life forever.
An accidental hit to the ear during a training session caused serious blunt force trauma to his eardrum. It perforated and ruptured, leaving him deaf in his left ear.
“As a result, I’ve also got severe tinnitus and I also have a bit of vestibular disturbance, which causes me balance issues,” says Nick. “It can happen if I get up too quickly, and I can’t go on merry go rounds or boats because I feel sick.”
At the time of Nick’s accident, the options for hearing devices were very limited, and the cochlear implant technology we have today didn’t exist. He says his hearing aid was large and obvious, making it difficult to fit in as a young high school student.
“You automatically stand out. As time went on, I started to feel less confident about wearing the hearing aid, because I was bullied for being different.
“Eventually, I reached a point where I just stopped wearing it, and the left ear went completely dead. So there's nothing in there, there’s about zero percent hearing in my left ear.”
Fast forward 20 years, now (33), Nick is a fireman and puts his life on the line to keep his community safe.
Nick is a Fire Risk Management Officer, an important role in the department that involves investigating fires and educating the community.
“I was yearning for a role with public service that was also packed with adventure. Firefighting was the perfect option for me because it would mean I could make a difference and help people during the worst days of their lives.
“I've never looked back and I know I'll be a lifer, I’ll be one of those guys with the big moustaches in my 60's with a big gut to match.”
One of his favourite parts of the job is helping people like himself, who are dealing with hearing loss or disabilities. His unique experience allows him to specialise in fire safety for people with disabilities and help educate different groups about how to prepare for an emergency.
“The reality is, if you are disabled or hard of hearing, you are more vulnerable in an emergency. It's a fact of life. I just try to make them feel less vulnerable by getting them prepared so they've got a fighting chance to get out if a fire occurs.”
But even with his great career, his hearing loss and severe tinnitus still made daily life difficult.
“I avoided bars, restaurants, and cafes. I’d even pick a cafe or restaurant based on its sound levels, not the quality of the coffee or the food.
“I isolated myself at events with gatherings of more than two or three people, like family events and weddings, because I just couldn’t keep up with the conversation.”
A family man with three kids, Nick’s hearing started taking a toll on his family relationships. He says he would miss out on special moments and inside jokes because he couldn’t hear them. His wife would repeat things back to him, but he says it just wasn’t the same.
“A classic example of this, which I've never forgiven my ears for, was when my granddad passed away. My whole family was all crowding around his hospice bed, and he was on my left, so on my bad side.
“It was such a tight room and I couldn't quite get to where I needed to be. Then he said something to me, so I leant in, and then he said something again, but I still couldn't hear him. To this day I still have no idea what he said.
“I think if I had to pick a moment when my hearing loss really crushed me, it was that moment.”
Then earlier this year Nick received a cochlear implant. Because he lost his hearing in an accident, the surgery was funded by ACC. While he says it’s still very new and a big adjustment, his tinnitus intensity has decreased by around 70 percent, and he’s hearing sounds he forgot even existed.
“When I had my switch on, it was a windy day, and when I went outside I heard this sound that would come up in intensity and then go down. I looked around, and I saw the trees, and then I realised it was the wind.
“It’s all of the little things that many people take for granted – it’s all new to me.”
Nick says he’s excited to see what the future holds for him, not just at home with his family, but also at work. He says the implant gives him a better localisation of sound, keeping him safer when investigating fires.
“If I'm standing on a weak floorboard, I don't have to think, is that creaking coming from my left or my right – I can move away from the sound. Or, I can hear if a beam is about to collapse and I have enough time to get out of there.
“I would also love to be able to pinpoint where a cell phone is ringing in a room. That way, I won’t need to flip all the cushions off the couch, only to discover the cell phone is in my pocket!”