A New Chapter

Connie Briscoe's new novel is her fifth, but the first since a life-altering surgery restored her hearing.

July 09, 2005|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

A popular and prolific writer, Ellicott City's Connie Briscoe has published five novels since 1995. Yet she was profoundly deaf when she wrote her first four.

"I suspect that if I had not lost my hearing I may never have actually started writing [novels]," Briscoe says.

One of her dreams had been to become a reporter or editor at a newspaper. "So if I had been hearing," she says, "I may have gone on to something else as a journalist or an editor or something like that. So I often think possibly if I had been hearing I might never have written a novel."

Sitting across from her at the dining room table in her house, few would ever know she had been deaf. She has just finished a promotional tour in the Washington area for her newest novel, Can't Get Enough. And for the first time in a decade she didn't need a sign-language interpreter.

Two summers ago she had a cochlear implant - a complex electronic device surgically inserted behind the ear - at the Listening Center at Johns Hopkins Outpatient Center.

When she wrote her first novel, Sisters and Lovers, she had an 80 percent hearing loss. Today she hears at an 80 percent level.

"With the implant, I'm back to where I was when I was younger," she says. "A lot has changed. I'm able to use the telephone again, hear things like the doorbell without any aids or enhancement.

"When I went on book tours for my first four novels, I had to take an interpreter with me," she says. She needed a sign-language interpreter for radio and television interviews. "I had an interpreter who would sign the questions. And when I did a reading, she would sign questions for me from the audience."

All that changed a few weeks after her surgery when her implant was activated by a small computer she wears on the ear like a large hearing aid.

Dr. John K. Niparko, director of ear surgery at Johns Hopkins and head of the Listening Center, explains that an antenna collects sounds that the computer transmits across the skin to the "radio control tower" of the implanted device. This sound information is relayed into the contacts in the ear which stimulate the hearing nerve with small electrical impulses. "It's absolutely remarkable," Niparko says. "The most remarkable thing about it though is that the human body can use this very, very complicated information to give a good sense of sound.

"The very, very complex process of translating this code into meaningful sound is truly remarkable and evidence that the hearing brain remains intact even in deafness," he says. "By virtue of the hearing brain, patients with cochlear implants are able to use this information to understand complex sounds such as speech, music, environmental sounds."

For Briscoe this means she had gone from being "severely, profoundly, definitely deaf to being mildly hearing impaired."

She was born with a 20 decibel - about 20 percent - hearing loss. That's about where she is now.

"I went through grade school [to] college pretty much OK, sitting in front of classes, doing a lot of things to compensate."

She acquired "really good lip-reading skills." But in graduate school at American University her hearing got so bad she needed a hearing aid.

"That helped for a while," she says. "But in the last 10 years it got really bad."

But her novels, which she wrote over that last decade, don't seem to reveal that they were written by a deaf person.

"I think deafness is a state of mind as much as it is a physical condition," Briscoe says. "Because I heard pretty well when I was young. I think like a hearing person. I think that's true for people who become deaf late in life. For a person who is born deaf, it's just different.

Niparko observes that "it's really difficult in general for people with hearing to identify with the idea of having no hearing, or to have no useful hearing."

Dr. Charley C. Della Santina, the Listening Center surgeon who did her implant, says the very fact that Briscoe lost most of her hearing later in life made her an excellent candidate for implant surgery.

"Cochlear implant is really just restoring input to a brain that knows what to do with it," Della Santina says. Children who have not yet acquired language also do really well.

"You remember sounds even though you may not hear them for years," Briscoe says. "When I lost my hearing I had enough that I could pick up the ebb and flow of a conversation. I was still very good at the stresses in the voice. I could tell if you were angry by the tone. I could tell if you were sad."

Understanding those nuances has helped her with writing. And people have said her writing is "very visual."

"When I'm writing a scene I do see it move before me in a visual way," she says. "I'm told not everyone does that. Maybe that's a compensation for not hearing. I'm not sure."

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