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Enlightened by ear wax: how it feels to be a patient again

I’ve always thought there are some diseases that are more glamorous than others. There’s something vaguely mystical about ‘the flu’, whereas a cold is rather boring and, as the name suggests, somewhat ‘common’.

I was recently struck down by a disappointingly unfashionable affliction when I woke to find I had lost the hearing in my left ear. Immediately diagnosing myself with a cerebellopontine angle lesion (far too much time spent working in palliative care…) and, fearing the worst, I asked my GP husband to take a look. ‘It’s full of wax,’ came his unhesitating diagnosis. I felt a mixture of relief and disgust.

Having accepted the unpalatable nature of the problem, I then had to face the irritating symptoms and treatment.

I started to realise just how much I rely on my hearing to keep track of the baby. Suddenly he was able to get really stuck into demolishing the DVDs before I even had an inkling anything was amiss. Trying to open a new bank account became a tiresome game of ‘pardon’ tennis and I found myself nodding along despite only hearing a small percentage of what was said. Relentless tinnitus and messy eardrops only made my experience worse.

After ten days of drops I called my GP to request syringing, half-expecting to be told there was a long wait or that I needed to persevere with the drops for a while longer. But the GP was able to arrange an appointment with the nurse just a couple of days later. The nurse was also excellent, especially when putting up with my unusual interest in the irrigation process.

She seemed slightly bemused to have such a grateful patient, but I suppose she didn’t know how infuriating life had been for the two weeks beforehand. It surprised me how much a trivial ailment could impact on my life and how cross it had made me.

I had felt quite isolated, unable to properly engage with people or interact on a level with other professionals. In future I will really try to ensure that every patient has understood what I am saying, and are not just agreeing with me out of habit or social courtesy. Trivial illnesses can have a less than trivial impact on everyday life and, although certainly not trendy, having too much ear wax has proved to be rather enlightening.

Dr Laura O’Loghlen is a GPST1 who lives in Devon and trains in Gloucestershire.