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'The one good thing about being deaf is I don't hear Dee's orders!': BBC War reporter John Simpson reveals how he copes with hearing loss caused by a bomb blast
BBC correspondent John Simpson
He has dodged bullets at the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and was one of the first reporters to enter Kabul as the Taliban regime fell in 2001, famously disguising himself in a burka. John Simpson is one of Britain’s best-loved newsmen, yet to his family and friends he is increasingly a source of frustration.
For the BBC world affairs editor’s fondness for frontline reporting has come at a cost: he is profoundly deaf in his left ear, having joined the growing ranks of Britons suffering from noise-induced hearing loss.
‘I’ve never liked big parties much anyway, but now I avoid those things wherever I can,’ admits John, who lives in London with his second wife, Dee Kruger, a television producer, and their five-year-old son Rafe.
‘You can see how irritated people get with you, having to speak louder and repeat everything. Even Rafe gets sick of having to say everything three times.’
But being deaf does have some small advantages. ‘When my wife asks me to take the rubbish out, for example, sometimes I don’t catch that,’ he laughs.
John’s condition dates back to a terrifying day in 2003 when he and his production team were hit by US friendly fire in Iraq. ‘I was about 12 yards away from a 100 lb bomb,’ says the 67-year-old. ‘It knocked me out and a friend pulled me away. Eighteen people were killed. My translator had his legs blown off and died of blood loss almost immediately.’
Incredibly, John survived, suffering only shrapnel wounds and a damaged eardrum in his left ear. ‘Funnily enough, it wasn’t too bad – I lost only about 30 per cent of my hearing,’ he says. ‘Although the American medic who looked after me said he had never seen somebody’s brain leaking through their ear before.’
John had his eardrum rebuilt in London, an operation he says was a success until he was the victim of another occupational hazard. ‘In 2006, I went to Kosovo and my colleague and I were walking down the street late one evening when we were jumped on by a group of six or seven men,’ he recalls. ‘One of them hit me on my bad ear a couple of times. That made it much worse.’
At his last check-up, John had 70 per cent hearing loss in his left ear. ‘It’s got worse over the years, possibly because I do a lot of flying,’ he says.
While damage from bomb blasts and violent attacks are fortunately rare, about 22,000 people in the UK are thought to be suffering from hearing loss related to damage sustained at work. John admits now that he wishes he had taken more care with his hearing. ‘After I was beaten up in Kosovo, my specialist told me I should have an operation to explore whether there was further damage to the eardrum and if it needed doing again, but I never have and I think I was stupid not to. Anybody who has this sort of problem should go and get it checked.’
John reporting in Iraq when the bomb blast happened, he is now deaf in his left ear
Senior audiologist Crystal Rolfe, of the charity Action on Hearing Loss, explains that loud noises can damage the ear in two ways. ‘If you’re exposed to loud noises, it damages the sensory hair cells lining the cochlea [part of the inner ear] and these are irreplaceable. Long-term exposure to low-level noise will cause these hairs to degenerate over time, but a very loud bang from an explosion can damage them much more quickly.
‘Loud noises can puncture the eardrum [the fine membrane that separates the outer ear from the middle ear]. When a sound goes into your ear, it travels down the ear canal and makes the eardrum vibrate, sending sounds into the cochlea responsible for hearing. The eardrum needs to be a large surface area for this to happen – if it becomes punctured, your hearing is reduced.’
Damage to the cochlear hairs means you are less able to hear high-pitched sounds, adds Rolfe. ‘These sounds are crucial for understanding what people say.’
Damage to the eardrum affects low-pitched sounds, so the quality of the sound will be reduced. The eardrum can be damaged simply by sticking a cotton bud in your ear, adds Rolfe. It may heal on its own or you may need a timpanoplasty, where surgeons repair the drum.
Despite his deafness, John is showing no
sign of giving up war reporting and was recently seen on our screens
broadcasting live from the conflict in Libya
Due to the damage to John’s ear, he has been advised a hearing aid would not be helpful – although this isn’t true for everyone with noise-induced hearing loss.
‘Hearing aids can still be beneficial for some,’ says Rolfe. ‘That’s why it’s important if your hearing has been damaged by a loud noise to make sure you’re seen by a proper ear, nose and throat doctor. You may not be able to reverse the damage, but it’s important to get advice on how to protect your hearing in the future.’
Despite his deafness, John is showing no sign of giving up war reporting and was recently seen on our screens broadcasting live from the conflict in Libya.
He asks his director and cameraman always to speak into his right ear, and has earpieces made for this ear so he can hear questions from anchormen in the studio in Britain.
John is determined not to let his problems get him down. ‘I’m not going to whinge about it. I could have been killed, lost a leg or been blinded. I feel it’s rather bad karma to complain about it.’
lFor more information and a free hearing check, visit actionhearing loss.org.uk