Magic: A Cochlear Implant Story

Dana H. Gellis, M.A., LDT-C, C.E.D.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. —Sir Arthur C. Clarke

Attending Penn & Teller's award-winning Las Vegas magic show is an exhilarating experience. Participation may well elevate the experience to be the highlight of one's vacation. Doing so with a little magic up one's own sleeve, or tucked behind one's ear, unknown even to these world-renowned illusionists, is otherworldly.

In a ritual familiar to those of us with hearing loss, I requested seating as close as possible to the stage for optimal auditory acuity and visual access. My request was granted with seats three and four of row A. Also familiar to many of us with substantially impaired hearing is the panic that goes with the likelihood of being singled out during a performance, thanks to those great seats, only to find oneself unable to hear what is said and respond with a mortified, "huh?" or clueless smile and nod. One does not feel or look deaf in these situations. One feels embarrassed and disconnected.

This had been my reality for as long as I can remember. At shows or comedy clubs, I'd hide behind my cocktail or my date and silently plead not to be noticed. The torturous few times that a microphone made its way past this façade to wait expectantly under my nose, I froze and later falsely blamed my reticence on either too much alcohol or too corny an act to earn the honor of my participation.

This was the status quo until February of 2005 when I traded in the remaining defunct hair cells of my right cochlea for a cochlear implant. Not only did this little device open up a world of sound, speech and access, it unwrapped opportunities to participate in life in ways that simply do not exist for people who don't have access to sound.

As Penn Gillette introduced the show's knife throwing act and scanned the first few rows of the audience for victims, my husband leaned into me and said, "How'd you like to get called up for THAT?!" Seconds later, Penn gestured to me, asked my name and invited me onstage.

As I walked onstage, I felt surprisingly confident. I recall thinking, "How cool is this?" and wondering exactly when this self assurance and social eagerness replaced the sheer white panic and familiar, stifling fear of being singled out or doing anything public where I might be "outed" for my auditory cluelessness.

It takes time for the brain to learn to interpret the electronic impulses that a cochlear implant delivers. The process can be lengthy and arduous. We cochlear implant users are often blown away by moments when the power of this technology reveals itself in our daily lives; this was one of those moments for me. Who would have thought an electrode array inserted into my cochlea could deliver a jolt of confidence as well as sound?! A slinky black dress and really good heels didn't hurt either.

I will not reveal the details of Penn & Teller's knife throwing act - it's well worth the trip to Vegas to experience for yourself - but I will say this: I was blindfolded for much of it. The bulk of the joke was designed to be on me as I was the only one in the room who couldn't see how the trick was executed. I was alternately the target as well as the thrower of the knives. There was a lot of interaction and talking, including following stage directions, all while blindfolded in front of hundreds of people. It is hard to imagine a more auditorily vulnerable scenario. The act involves more comedy and good-natured trickery than magic, but unknown to anyone in the room except for me and one other person, there was a different sort of magic going on. My husband, all too familiar with my shy, spotlight-avoidant past, sat in proud awe watching Penn Gillette speak to a blindfolded deaf woman, whose magic was to answer, send knives sailing through the air and smile knowingly.