By David Fabry
Many people may know Lou Ferrigno from his iconic title role in the television series “The Incredible Hulk” from the late 1970s. In the show, Dr. David Banner (Bill Bixby) travels across the United States and finds himself in positions where he helps others in need despite a terrible secret: because of a laboratory experiment, he transforms into an enormous, savage, incredibly strong alter-ego named the Hulk (Ferrigno) during times of extreme anger or stress. Banner’s inner struggle paralleled the dilemmas of the people he encountered on the road and the plot line focused on various ways that the Hulk manifested itself in everyone.
Although I watched the show when it was broadcast from 1978–1982, my familiarity with Ferrigno began earlier, when he co-starred with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1977 bodybuilding documentary “Pumping Iron.” I was immediately struck by the contrast in personalities between Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno. The former was extroverted, aggressive, and brash and he trained at Santa Monica’s Muscle Beach, while the quiet and reserved Ferrigno trained privately with his father in a poorly lit basement gym.
I found myself instantly rooting for Lou and learned in the movie that he had lost much of his hearing as a child. Although well before I decided to become an audiologist, it was one of my earliest exposures to the challenges faced by those with severe-to-profound hearing loss.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to meet Lou on several occasions and was honored to catch up with him during Better Hearing Month (in May) to discuss his recent cochlear implant surgery.
David Fabry (Q): Thank you for taking the time out of your schedule during Better Hearing Month to discuss your hearing journey and that you received a cochlear implant for your left ear just a couple months ago.
Lou Ferrigno (A): Yes, that is correct.
Q: I watched your cochlear implant activation video on YouTube, and I must say, it appeared to be quite an emotional experience for you. Can you describe what it felt like when the device was turned on for the first time?
A: Well, you have to remember that, after the surgery, you can’t hear anything until you get activated. For me, because of COVID, it was nearly five weeks before they activated the device for the first time. At that time, it went from a silent world to a whole different sound.
Q: I would like to explore that a little bit. First, you were identified with hearing loss and fitted with a hearing aid at age three or four, correct?
A: I would say four and a half or five years of age. I was fitted with the old-fashioned hearing aids with the strap on the chest and that button sticking out with the wire. It made me feel self-conscious, but I had no choice because the doctor told my parents that I had a hearing loss. I was surprised that my parents did not know until the age of four because they would clap their hands and I would not respond. I remember my mother breaking down in tears when she took me for the hearing aid fitting and they fitted me with the hearing aids.
Back then, people did not know what hearing aids were or understand them like they do today. I felt like a freak at the time, but I realized that I was the only person who could help myself. Being rejected and dealing with the speech issues, I had a long uphill fight that gave me a chance to find my passion, which became bodybuilding. It changed my life because I realized that nobody else was going to pat me on the back and help me. I realized that I had to act for myself.
Q: I understand that you are turning 70 this year. A lot of younger audiologists may not realize that it was not that long ago that people with significant hearing loss were referred to as “Deaf and mute” or worse, “deaf and dumb.” It is so painful to even say those words; I can only imagine how it made you feel.
A: The big factor was that, when I was born with this hearing loss, I was rejected by my father because he did not have the “perfect” son. He used to say to me, “If you had your hearing, you could be a great athlete; you could be a police officer.” He instilled all that negativity. I would carry his pain the whole time because there were kids that made fun of me. They beat me up and called me names.
One day, I felt like I had to do something about it. I became an avid comic book reader. I liked to read about the Hulk, Spiderman, and Superman because many kids are obsessed with superheroes. I used that power issue to get involved in bodybuilding because I knew that the more I built my body and physique, the more respect I would get.
Over time, that changed everything. Now, I am the kind of guy that, if anybody says I cannot do something because I have a hearing loss, it motivates me to work hard to achieve it anyway. I am glad to be an example for people with hearing loss today. There is no shame to hearing loss; you can improve your hearing with a cochlear implant. It has been a life changer for me!
Q: You’ve been such a strong advocate for those with hearing loss over the years. As a professional working in this field, I am so grateful to you for sharing your story and serving as a role model for children and adults with hearing loss. I think you have turned that into your superpower. You mentioned that you now hear some of those higher-pitched sounds better and that this also helped with your speech production.
A: Yes, growing up, one of the biggest obstacles for me was dealing with the speech issues. I learned to speak by the feeling of my tongue—that’s phonetics. The thing that I like about the cochlear implant is that I do not have to remind myself about different words because the implant helps me to hear my own voice more naturally.
Q: Actually, I know that it is a process that will take time, but I can hear a difference in your voice already.
A: At the time of the initial activation, my hearing clarity was maybe 18 or 19 percent. In only like seven weeks, the words started to sound much clearer and I was up to around 65 percent.
And you can tell from the way that I’m speaking now, I can hear the different “s” sounds that I never heard before. People used to say that I had a slight lisp, but that is going to be gone soon because I have been working hard on my diction.
The interesting thing that people must know is that, when they get a cochlear implant, it is almost like it is like using new gym equipment. Instead of your body, however, you are training the “ear muscle.”
Q: Are you wearing a hearing aid on the right ear currently?
A: Yes. I have always had a greater problem with my left ear, but I am starting to lose more hearing in my right ear, as well. Maybe in a year’s time, I will get an implant on the right ear.
Q: You talk about committing to rehabilitation (or habilitation) with your implant to appreciate and perceive sounds differently from the way you heard them acoustically. This probably seems easy for you, as someone who has had the discipline to train for competitions that ended up with you winning the Mr. America and Mr. Universe bodybuilding competitions. Can you describe how the process has been for you?
A: Sometimes it takes people six to nine months, but the way I have been working at it, for me, it has been a matter of five or six weeks. Like you mentioned, it depends on the person. But people must know that, when you get a cochlear implant, although everybody gets it activated, everyone’s experience during the transition is a little different.
For me, remember, I have had a profound hearing loss my whole life and I have never heard the way that I hear now. I wish I could have done this sooner, but I know it takes time, and the more you work at it, the more beneficial it is to you. I say that, in a year’s time, I might have my word discrimination at 85 to 87 percent.
Q: I love how specific you are at setting your goals, and it provides insight into your mindset regarding this whole process. It is interesting to examine people’s journeys and, although you say that you wish you had received the implant sooner, maybe you are just where you needed to be. The improvements in cochlear implant technology have been dramatic in recent years, and it is remarkable that you are doing so well.
A:It is amazing because I originally thought that a cochlear implant would have a lot of limitations. A friend of mine, who has similar problems, did a lot of research prior to being implanted. Now he has word discrimination of 98 percent, but he didn’t have as much hearing loss as I did for as long of a time. His decision, however, gave me the confidence to have a cochlear implant because, if he has done so well, why can’t I? It was the best decision I ever made.
Q: Yes, although you had a role model in your friend, it can be a challenging decision for many people to proceed with the surgery. Unlike hearing aids, you cannot simply return the devices if you do not like them. What finally led you to the decision to move forward? Was it made worse because of COVID, when everyone was wearing face masks, and you were losing audibility and lipreading cues?
A: Well, during COVID, and with a lot of people wearing the masks, it almost smothers their speech. It is frustrating because you can’t easily ask people to lower their mask to see their lips, but it made it very difficult to communicate.
I realized during COVID, and thinking of my friend, that I should take the step. Do not get me wrong; I was scared to death. I did not know what was going to happen. I was not sure if I would be a candidate and I also hoped that nothing would go wrong. But it was better than I expected and what I like about this most of all is the improvement in my diction.
As an actor, whether it was a stage play or film, I had producers tell me that I had a speech impediment. Some would try to put me down for it. I have dealt with that for my whole life. Although I perfected my personal power in my body, this was my opportunity to do something with my ears. This opportunity is like icing on the cake.
Q: Absolutely. May is Better Hearing Month and people are finally starting to realize that better hearing is linked to overall health and well-being. I know that you are familiar with Helen Keller, who had a profound loss of both vision and hearing. With tremendous respect for the Deaf community, Keller said, “Blindness cuts us off from things, but deafness cuts us off from people.” She also stated that her greatest challenge was the “acute disappointment in not being able to speak normally.”
A:I can relate to this. Because of my hearing loss, I have always had to ask for more power from my hearing aids. The best hearing aid in the world is not going to give me the clarity that I hear now because sometimes more power affects clarity. Hearing aids help a lot of people, but the cochlear implant improved speech clarity in ways that were not possible from hearing aids.
Q: Have you started streaming audio directly from your smartphone to your implant yet?
A: I am listening to TED Talks and I am doing all the different training apps. There are ones where you listen to four words and pick the one that was said. Others have environmental sounds or the names of animals. It is almost like working out, but you are training the ear. I am amazed at how much I am hearing and the way that it works with my brain.
Q: It is incredible to think that, during my career, we used to consider the operation a success if implant users could identify a familiar talker. Now you are telling me that you are streaming TED Talks from your smartphone to your device. No doubt, however, that this is due to your dedication and focus on training.
A: I really could not fathom before how well it would work and how quickly I would feel results. I do not dread the training at all. In fact, it is exciting. But you are right, I am training hard.
Q: What does your family say? I know you and your wife, Carla, have been married for 41 years. What does she say? And what do your children say?
A: They are amazed that I can hear others saying words that I could not hear before. One time, I had my wife stand 50 feet back from me and speak very low. I was able to hear all the words that she said. Now, I keep telling her to close the refrigerator door because the buzzing sound drives me insane! Before, I could not even hear it. And this is just one ear. Imagine what will happen when I have both ears implanted!
Q: Some research has suggested that, if you have a way to provide acoustic input, either by wearing a hearing aid in the non-implanted ear or by preserving residual hearing in the implanted ear (if possible), that music sounds better. Are you listening to music and does music sound better when you have the hearing aid in your right ear?
A: I use both but, most of the time, I am doing the exercises with just the implant. Music does sound much more natural to me; it is much more relaxing, especially when I’m streaming directly to the implant from my iPhone.
Q: What’s next? I know that you have a movie (Guest House) that came out in 2020. What is on the horizon?
A: What I am excited about, when I go back to filming in about a month, is to see the changes in how other people sound and the way that I sound.
Q: I cannot wait to see—and hear—how that goes.
A: To summarize the whole thing, it is like your body but, instead of training with the machines to build your muscles, you are training your “ear muscles” and your brain. But it must come from you. The effort you put in is directly proportionate to what you get out. To me, it is about maximizing the result to be the best I can hear and the best I can speak. That is the goal.
I think that really is your superpower. Like the Hulk, you found a way to harness the anger and frustration from being teased about your speech and hearing as a kid into a powerful force for effective communication. Thank you for your time today and sharing your powerful story with our readers.
This article is a part of the September/October 2021 Audiology Today issue.