Written by Sabrina Littee
Living on a cruising sailboat with an irreparable eardrum has been challenging learning to accept my limitations. 3 years back I got an infection that disintegrated my ear drum and kept me on multiple antibiotics then steroids for over a month. It wrecked havoc on me physically and emotionally. I’ve had 2 operations on my eardrum, both unsuccessful, in attempts to repair what the bacteria had disintegrated. My broken eardrum has made it physically impossible to swim at depth. For years, I’ve suspended myself, floating at the surface, staring into the depths of what once was my life.
The eardrum is a small very important piece of tissue that separates our middle ear from the outside world. The problem with ear stuff, is it’s completely limiting when your life revolves around the ocean. I was imprisoned on my own boat while friends who visited surfed and dove to their hearts content.
After the initial infection and rupture, I had to keep my ear completely dry, I’m talking head out of the water dry, as the bacteria left a gaping hole where my eardrum once was. While most ruptured eardrums will heal on their own in about a month, mine was a rather extreme case, 70% was missing, plus the edges of the hole were jagged and not smooth due to the mechanism of how my drum got destroyed. After 6 months my recovery stalled out and I was left with a 40-50% opening that was never going to fully close on its own without surgical intervention.
The surgical repair of a broken eardrum, called a Tympanoplasty, is a 2.5-3 hour operation under general anesthesia. The surgeon works meticulously to cut off the ear, peeling it back from the skull to expose the canal and drum. They harvest tissue from the scalp to create a new grafted ear drum. They then scratch up the surrounding healthy tissue, irritating it to cause it to bleed so it can adhere to the new tissue graft as it heals. It’s all pretty intense. Recovery process is about a month. It’s a challenge to heal due to the little amount of blood flow that feeds the area. Yet, surprisingly, the success rate for tympanoplasty is 90%.
Despite the impressive statistics, I’ve undergone two of these operations about a year apart. Sadly, neither have been hugely successful. My first graft didn’t adhere on one edge leaving a wide slit. The second attempt had a better outcome, but still wasn’t perfect. The graft adhered, but the tissue itself was too thin in one section (only 1 of 3 layers of skin grew back). I diligently wore ear plugs to keep water out, otherwise the ocean stung – like salt in a wound (literally). Years have passed and my ear remains about the same, mostly fixed, but not perfect. Any sort of pressure would force water into my ear giving me an intense headache and a feeling of a head full of water. By the evening I would be congested and miserable. I was saddened from my inability to fully participate in the activities that now dictated my life. I avoided waves at all cost and surface snorkeling was all I could do.
It was a hard truth to swallow – the reality that I live on a boat and I may never be able to dive again. My body just didn’t want to heal itself. I felt totally dependent on Kristian for so much. If our anchor ever got stuck, I couldn’t do anything about it, Kristian had to be the one to dive down and help untangle the anchor chain. If we wanted to go snorkel from the dinghy, the same anchoring issues arose. Often, the best way to anchor the dinghy was to swim the front line that attaches to the dinghy down to a rock and secure it through or around; yet another job I was reliant on Kristian for. This feeling of dependence ate away at my fierce independence. I swallowed what little pride I had left and remained grateful Kristian did so much for us.
Every year I try and take some time off the boat to work and visit family. This year I did a 6 month nurse contract, which is probably the longest time I’ve spent away from the boat. The dry climate and lack of water exposure seemed to have positive effects. “My ear feels different, more solid” I remember expressing to Kristian. It still wasn’t perfect as every so often when I would equalize my ears, air would leak out and whistle continuously indicative of a tiny pinhole. I remember discussing my issues with my friend Toby who also happens to be an ear specialist. “Have you tried diving with it?” He asked curious if my ear still functioned. My eyes wide with disbelief, he seemed to be suggesting that my ear might actually work in this not so ideal state. He planted a tiny seed of wonder and hope. Maybe air leaks out, but does water come in?
I was building the courage to evaluate the current function of my not so perfect ear while on my most recent trip to visit Kristian in Tikehau. I had scheduled an ear doctor appointment with my surgeon for my return. I was setting up the pawn pieces for the biggest move I was yet to make. The fear of pain and worsening damage crippled me from testing the limits until the end of my trip. Three days before flying home, I decided to summon the courage and give it a try. Surprisingly, I made it to 2 feet and it seemed to work, ears equalized, no pain, no water getting in. (I use special vented ear plugs to allow me to dive while keeping salt water out of my highly sensitive ears). I didn’t have weights with me to go deeper without struggling, so I waited till the following day to make sure I didn’t have rebound sinus symptoms that evening.
Feeling great the following morning, I collected my dive gear I hadn’t worn in years. Strapping that rubber waist belt on felt so strange. I was taking it one baby step at a time. We were heading to a special coral island that is known for swimming with Manta Rays. It’s hit or miss if you see them, but I was feeling hopeful and I remember saying, “if the mantas are there, I’m diving down!”
We tied the dinghy up to a rope mooring in the water. I rolled off the dinghy and will never forget lifting my head back out of the water excitedly yelling “They’re RIGHT HERE!” The mantas, 3 of them, were literally beneath us! You’re lucky if you see one. But my golly, there were 3!
Without more than a second to think, I took a deep breath and started my descent towards these majestic giants. I equalized every foot of the way down. I could feel air bubble out of my ear with each equalization, but water wasn’t getting in. IT WORKED!! I was eye to eye with the manta, transfixed by its grace and beauty. I could see the opal sheen of its horn shaped cephalic fins that twist and unfold helping it feed on tiny plankton. It flapped it’s way around coral rocks getting cleaned by little cleaner fish, not phased by my presence. It was mesmerizing and I continued going up and diving back down for hours.
I felt like I was lucid dreaming, weightlessly moving thru the crystal clear water column, as if floating in space. All my favorite fishy characters that I’ve been so accustomed to seeing from the top down, were now inches from my face, starring back at me with equally wide eyes. It was astonishing, flexing my gills and feeling my mermaid tail come back to life.