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Matt Hay gradually went deaf. But music helped him partially hear again

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This year will mark a decade since I realized I was going deaf. Now, I've talked about this some publicly, but for those who don't know, I have severe to profound hearing loss. I host this program wearing hearing aids in both ears. So it was with special interest that I picked up the new memoir "Soundtrack Of Silence." The author, Matt Hay, has struggled with his hearing since he was a kid. As he grew up, his hearing got worse and then worse. In college, he found out he had NF2, neurofibromatosis type 2. It's a rare genetic condition that caused tumors to grow on the nerves that transmit sound to his brain. As his hearing disappeared, Hay found that one of the things he missed most was music, and music has also been his path back to partial hearing. Matt Hay, welcome.

MATT HAY: Thank you. I'm excited to be here.

KELLY: Describe the moment when you learned you were losing your hearing and you were going to fully lose it and that it was irreversible.

HAY: It's a very sobering moment when you come to, like, the acceptance of, like, hey; there's this steamroller coming, and it's really far away. But eventually, it's going to get here. It's almost - it would be, like, a fun bar game to sit around with your friends and say, hey; if you had to create your greatest hits playlist for life, what would it be? It's a lot less fun when you very literally have to be thinking, what songs do I want stuck in my head for the rest of my life?

KELLY: You do write beautifully about the very last song you heard with your own ears, George Harrison's "Here Comes The Sun." Can you tell me, like, where you were, what you remember about hearing it?

HAY: I remember a lot about that day because, you know, my hearing was - you mentioned your hearing loss being gradual, and thank you for sharing that. I think it's wonderful that you - how open you've been about sharing that. But that steamroller was coming, was coming. And one day, I woke up, and I could just tell things were different. I went into work, and everybody sounded like Charlie Brown's teacher. Something was different. And I came back home, and my wife knew something was wrong 'cause I came back home midday in a cab, and we didn't have money to be taking cabs. And so I got there, and she was waiting at the door, and I said, I think it's happening. And I didn't have to offer any more detail. We were at a point in our lives where, you know, we hadn't been married long, but she knew exactly what I meant.

And we hugged. We cried. And she's just a wonderful, wonderful person, and I think anybody that read this story will see she's the hero of the story. And she said, OK, what do you want to do? And we knew enough sign language, and I can hear a little and read - lip read a little and that - I picked that up. What do you want to do? And I thought about it for a minute of the - what's the last thing you want to hear? And maybe chalk this up to young love, but I chalk it up to she's got a really great laugh. The last thing I wanted to hear was the thing that made me happiest - was making her laugh. So we decided to go out to our favorite Mexican place. Looking back on that now, it's funny to me to think what the other patrons must have been thinking of. Like, why is she yelling such sweet things to that kid?

KELLY: (Laughter).

HAY: And we went home that night, and we woke up the next day, and we had a little CD player. And every morning, we woke up to "Here Comes The Sun."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE COMES THE SUN")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right.

HAY: And the next day, I woke up, and there was no "Here Comes The Sun." And the best way I can describe that is I woke up that day, and sound became a memory.

KELLY: That was how many years ago?

HAY: This was 2004.

KELLY: I'll explain to people. You're sitting about five feet away from me. We're talking. You can hear me. How does it work?

HAY: So one plus of losing your hearing slowly is you accidentally become a really good lip-reader. I can tell you what most NFL coaches are saying on the sidelines.

KELLY: (Laughter).

HAY: And it's usually not very sweet.

KELLY: So you're reading my lips.

HAY: B, I also am very fortunate that I have what is called an auditory brainstem implant. So shortly after losing my hearing, we had already talked to a lot of audiologists, a lot of EMTs. And just four years prior, the FDA had approved an auditory brainstem implant, or an ABI. So they put this little electrode of - 12 electrodes as a little flyswatter that they sew directly to your brainstem. And I had that done at the House Ear Institute in LA, which is the world's leading facility for this. So the expectation was that I would hear life noises, which is, like, oven timers and police sirens. But when you can't hear anything other than timers and police sirens, it's pretty romantic.

KELLY: Yeah. So I mean, long story short, you've had many surgeries. You've had implants. You're - there's an external device on the left side of your head, over your ear...

HAY: Yeah.

KELLY: ...That's visible. You are able to partially hear.

HAY: I am, though this conversation now, to answer your question, is reflective of 18 years of audio rehabilitation and working every day to - they said oven timers and police sirens, and four years later, I heard oven timers and police sirens. But that's where music came back into play - is...

KELLY: Yeah. What was - how did music help?

HAY: Well, the prompt was - at that point, we now had newborn twins. And I remember laying in bed and all of the work my wife had to do because there's so much work for her in general in that circumstance but also with me not being able to hear them. One night, one of the babies was crying, and I couldn't tell which one, and it terrified me. And I spent a lot of time thinking, what can I do to get better? - 'cause what I'm doing is not working. And I just had this notion of, well, I have these songs in my head, and I would go out running and have these songs in my head with no AirPods - just brain memory. And I thought, I wonder if listening to that music can help. What if music could become the Rosetta Stone so that my brain can tell - now tell my ABI, no, no, you've got it wrong? The opening to "Let It Be" is (vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEATLES SONG, "LET IT BE")

HAY: After a year of that, no change. After another year of that, no change. And one day, we got in the car, and Nora turned on the radio. My wife, Nora, turned on the radio, and then she turned it down really quickly so we can hear better when we talk 'cause when I'm not there, she rocks out. And I grabbed her wrist, and I said, is this "Crazy Game Of Poker" by O.A.R.?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT WAS A CRAZY GAME OF POKER")

O A R: (Singing) Don't know what to do unless I retire, and he just said...

HAY: 'Cause I very distinctly heard, I said, Johnny, what you doing tonight?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT WAS A CRAZY GAME OF POKER")

O A R: (Singing) So I said, Johnny, what you doing tonight?

HAY: And for the first time, we'd - something happened that we were told would never happen, and that - and I get goosebumps telling you about this now - is that...

KELLY: Yeah.

HAY: ...I heard music. I'm deaf. I'm deaf, and I heard music. And I'm...

KELLY: God, I have goosebumps thinking about what that must have been like after years of not hearing.

HAY: It is - I know. I tried to do it in words, but it's just hard to convey that moment.

KELLY: And how do you explain this? This is your brain relearning or finding new pathways to do something...

HAY: It is my brain...

KELLY: ...It once was able to do.

HAY: ...Relearning to hear.

KELLY: And it had to figure...

HAY: I wish I were a neurosurgeon...

KELLY: Yeah.

HAY: ...Or neuroscientist so I could explain the process. But what I found out afterward in getting to know some really wonderful audiologists is music therapy was being tested at the University of Texas, at Vanderbilt, at some of the leading audiology programs in the country, and they were all testing it in theory. So all of a sudden, I became a - my brain became a pretty popular test subject for a lot of folks that were - had thought about this in theory. And I think it was really just - our brains are pretty magical, and we don't understand all that they do. But when your brain knows something, it doesn't forget.

KELLY: Yeah. Matt Hay - his memoir is titled "Soundtrack Of Silence: Love, Loss, And A Playlist For Life." This has been a real pleasure. Thank you.

HAY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE COMES THE SUN")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Here comes the sun. Here comes the sun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.