Pompey football legend Alan Knight spent years struggling to hear conversations. But now hearing aids have transformed his life and he is campaigning to change attitudes to deafness.
‘That John Westwood has got a lot to answer for,’ smiles Knight, recalling the hundreds of times he would be subjected to the loud ringing bell of the club’s noisiest supporter.
But losing his hearing was devastating for the former goalkeeper. He felt cut off, unable to join in conversations and constantly had to ask people to repeat themselves.
Alan, now 48, was driving on a motorway in America three years ago when he first noticed problems in his left ear.
‘It popped like when you’re flying on a plane and then there was just this hissing sort of sound,’ he recalls.
When the problem was still there a few days later, Alan, who was in the States working as a coach for Dallas in the US football league, went to see his team’s doctor.
He was told the most likely cause was an ear infection and given a three-day course of antibiotics.
But three weeks later, at the end of the American football season, he was back in England and still experiencing the problem.
‘I tried all sorts of ear wax controlling products and things. I went to see the doctor several times he told me my ears might be blocked,’ he says.
Although Alan didn’t know it, his ears were deteriorating fast. He began to struggle with a 75 per cent loss of hearing in his left ear and a reduced ability to pick up high frequencies in the other.
As a result, his social life took a huge knock.
‘At first it became a bit of an ongoing joke with people around me saying I had gone deaf. I was relatively young at the time of it happening, in my mid-40s, so obviously I wasn’t aware that was actually what was going on.
‘After a while it was wearing thin with people that I was constantly asking them to repeat themselves over and over,’ says Alan.
‘In noisy areas or rooms I just couldn’t hear people. I felt excluded and I became a bit withdrawn.’
Six months later, when his ears had still not improved, Alan went back to his GP and was put on a waiting list to see an ear, nose and throat specialist at Queen Alexandra Hospital in Cosham.
When he got his appointment a few months later, he was given an MRI scan and received a huge blow.
‘The consultant told me my nerve endings, the hairs on my inner ear, were dead,’ he says.
He had suffered permanent hearing loss – and even worse, he was told it could have been completely avoidable.
Alan had suffered Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (SSHL) in his left ear, treatable if caught in the first two weeks.
‘The consultant said if it had been picked up straight away, I could have been given steroids which may have helped save my hearing,’ Alan says.
‘It made me very angry, the idea that I had missed the one chance I had to hold on to my hearing.’
SSHL occurs when the hair cells in the inner ear, known as cochlea, die. But the causes of the condition, which affects around 6,000 people a year, are known in only around 15 per cent of cases.
Alan looks back and wonders if his long football career could have been partly to blame. He says: ‘I feel some of it may have been caused through playing football, getting kicks to the head and loud crowds could have damaged my ears over time.’
Whatever the cause, Alan’s life has been changed forever. But he now wants to help change social attitudes towards deafness. By telling his story, he hopes to tackle what he sees as an ongoing stigma and ignorance surrounding deafness.
‘I think there is a stigma about having impaired hearing,’ he says.
‘It seems these days, no-one has a problem wearing glasses. When people go to the opticians and buy designer glasses, it’s seen as a cool thing. But wearing a hearing aid seems to just be associated with older people in their 70s or 80s.
‘People will go and have their eyes tested every couple of years, I think people should go and get their ears tested as well.’
In May, Alan went to hearing specialists Amplifon in Portsmouth, where he was fitted with two digital hearing aids, including a small one in his right ear programmed to amplify only high-frequency sounds.
The cost was around £3,500 for the pair, but since each is tuned to match the precise pattern of his hearing loss, Alan says he has regained his confidence.
‘When I got an NHS hearing aid, I was amazed how much it changed things. It improved my hearing a great deal. But there were a few problems, I didn’t clean it properly and got a bad ear infection from not taking it out often enough.
‘At first I was very cautious about having to wear hearing aids, but they are much more cosmetically favourable these days.
‘In the end, I was not particularly bothered what it looked like, I just wanted to hear better.’
Looking back over the last three years since that day his ear popped on the freeway, Alan says: ‘It’s not a nice thing to happen, but it’s better now, I should have got it sorted sooner. Now I know there’s so much available out there in the way of hearing devices.’
He adds: ‘I know it sounds cheesy, but if I can get across to just one person who’s losing their hearing to go and get their ears checked and save their hearing, then I would be very happy.’