The day that changed model and actress Jessica-Jane Clement’s life started ordinarily enough.
The Real Hustle and I’m A Celebrity star — who has been voted one of the world’s most desirable women — was at home in London with her then boyfriend.
Aged just 20 at the time, she was in perfect health.
Jess was sitting on the sofa when she suddenly heard a ringing in her right ear.
A few hours later when the ringing wore off, she realised her hearing in that ear had gone.
‘It was so quick,’ recalls Jess, now 27, who recently married hairdresser Lee Stafford.
‘When I spoke to my mum on the phone a few hours later, I thought it was broken because I couldn’t hear what she was saying.
‘Then the penny dropped that I could not hear.
‘I didn’t know what to do, so my boyfriend called the hospital and they said, “oh give it six weeks, her hearing should come back by then”.
The impression I got was it was just one of those things, and would resolve itself.’
However, her symptoms worsened.
Later that evening she felt giddy and was sick.
‘The next morning I felt like I’d been on a really heavy night out — the whole room felt as if it was spiralling,’ says Jess.
This continued for two weeks — but embarrassed by the rebuff from the hospital, Jess didn’t seek medical advice, deciding instead to stay with her mother in Sheffield.
‘I felt so rotten that I went up on the train in my pyjamas with a coat over me,’ says Jess.
‘I looked pale and thin due to the nausea and couldn’t stand upright for long without feeling sick.
‘Mum took one look at me and said: “I’m taking you to hospital.” ’
There, hearing tests revealed Jess had only 10 per cent hearing in her right ear, and her hearing loss was irreversible.
‘I was panicking, thinking “how can I do my job as an actress if I can’t hear?” I felt as if my life as I knew it was over.’
Sudden loss of hearing affects tens of thousands each year, —although some experts believe the true figure is much higher. It can be caused by a blow to the head or a disease such as measles, but in the vast majority of cases the reason is never known.
A common theory is that the hearing loss itself is caused by a lack of blood flow — this can be temporary or permanent.
It may also be due to a viral infection — some people report a ‘flu-like’ illness in the preceding days.
‘Other theories gaining more recent popularity are that it may be an immune-related problem (the body’s immune system attacks the inner ear) or possibly due to a rupture of the membranes that surround the inner ear,’ says Rohit Pratap, a consultant ear, nose and throat surgeon at West Hertfordshire Hospitals and Spire Hospital, Bushey, Hertfordshire.
‘Whatever the cause, it is a generally poorly-known fact that sudden hearing loss is a medical emergency.
‘The earlier that treatment can be started, the better.’
Steroids, given orally, intravenously or into the ear, can improve the chance of the hearing getting better if given early enough — generally within 72 hours.
‘The problem is the condition can be difficult to diagnose without specialist advice and equipment,’ says Mr Pratap, ‘because there are no “external signs” of disease such as inflammation of the ear, unlike standard ear infections.
‘Instead, the patient needs to have a detailed audiogram performed by a specialist, where sound is played at various frequencies into a patient’s headphones.’
A low-tech option for GPs is to use a tuning fork placed in the middle of the forehead.
The patient is asked in which ear the sound is louder — if hearing is normal, the sound will be heard equally between the two.
However, many GPs or non-specialist doctors may not perform this test, or refer a patient on for specialist help.
Sudden hearing loss should be taken as seriously as sudden blindness, adds Vivienne Michael, chief executive of Deafness Research UK.
‘Yet GPs don’t tend to know much about the condition and often misdiagnose it as a temporary middle or external ear problem.’
However, sometimes it is the patients who don’t act promptly.
‘They may think they have a bit of wax or a cold,’ says Mr Pratap.
‘However, I would advise anyone who has sudden profound hearing loss (for example, not being able to hear conversational level voices on the telephone) which persists for several hours, or if they have associated symptoms of dizziness, tinnitus (ringing in the ears) or pressure in the ears, to see their GP or go to A&E immediately.
When she went back to work, she found things difficult. ‘In one scene I had to lie down on my side — on my good ear — and couldn’t hear a thing,’ Jess recalls. ‘I had to put my head up to hear, so they had to change the lighting.’
It wasn’t just her hearing that went — so too did her balance, and dancing still leaves her giddy.
Yet over the next year, she learned to cope with her single-sided deafness.
‘I learned to do simple things that make a difference, like choosing my place at a dinner table so I could hear everyone, and slowly I got over the embarrassment of talking about it,’ she says.
But she had never tried hearing aids. ‘I didn’t want to have a visible hearing aid as I knew I couldn’t wear it for work.’
However, shortly after she was in I’m A Celebrity in 2011, someone suggested she try a new one that fits inside the ear canal, and therefore cannot be seen.
‘When I had it fitted I was like “oh my God, I can hear everything” — background noise, and people not just those right up close to me. I was on cloud nine.’
While it has made a real difference, she says she’s also benefited from accepting her hearing loss.
‘I’m now happy to speak out about it, because I know it can happen to anyone at any age. It’s not the end of the world.
‘Just because you can’t hear properly doesn’t mean your life is over.
If you’re concerned that you may be losing your hearing, contact Hidden Hearing on 1800 370 000 to arrange your free hearing test or you can find your nearest branch by clicking here: http://www.hiddenhearing.ie/contact-us/find-your-local-clinic