Jacqui Hames: 'I didn't suffer in silence when I started to lose my hearing'
Former detective and Crimewatch host Jacqui Hames tells Gabrielle Fagan how she coped with her 'hammer blow' news.
Former Crimewatch TV presenter Jacqui Hames was almost at breaking point following a marriage split and the stress of appearing as a witness at a controversial public enquiry. And then she discovered she had hearing loss - a blow that left her reeling.
“When doctors told me my hearing was damaged beyond repair and initially thought it could even get worse, it wasn't just a shock, it was devastating. Although I was struggling to hear properly, I'd assumed it was a temporary setback caused by a bout of ill-health. It was a body blow at a time when I felt least able to cope with it,” admits the attractive 55-year-old brunette, who's currently presenting a crime programme on Sky News on Sundays.
The former Metropolitan Police detective, who appeared on BBC One's Crimewatch for 16 years from 1990, is recalling the events of 2012, a year she describes as “one of the toughest of my life”.
Her marriage to a fellow police officer had ended the previous year and she was living alone with their two teenage children, who were 14 and 17.
In February, she'd given evidence at the controversial Leveson Inquiry into the ethics of the press, which put her personal life under the public spotlight as she alleged that she and her family had been put under surveillance by the News Of The World.
“It had been a period of prolonged stress and life-changing events and undoubtedly affected my health. A few months later, I got this severe flu-like virus which laid me low for weeks. While I gradually recovered, my hearing didn't,” she says.
“With hindsight, my hearing had been perfect for a while. I now realise I always had the TV on top volume much to my kids' annoyance. All those years of going to ear-battering concerts when I was younger and constantly listening to music on earphones must have taken a toll! But after the virus, it felt as though my ears were blocked and sound was literally muffled.”
Initially, Hames desperately hoped the loss was temporary, fearing the negative impact it would have on her and, crucially as a single parent, on her working life as a freelance broadcaster and media trainer.
“The worst effect of deafness is that you slowly start to feel you're getting isolated from the rest of the world, which is quite terrifying. On screen, I had a couple of occasions when I couldn't hear and had to bluff it out,” she says.
“I was struggling with social situations where the chink of glasses or rattle of crockery could completely drown out voices, and it's embarrassing asking people to repeat things. Also, I was concentrating so hard on trying to hear, I'd be exhausted at the end of a day.”
Audiology tests revealed that she had moderate ‘sensory neural' hearing loss. The virus had damaged her inner ear, or cochlear, hair cells. These are responsible for converting the sound coming out of the ear into electrical impulses, which are then forwarded to the relevant part of the brain for it to interpret.
“There are two types of hair cells, one is for clarity of sound and one is for volume — I have damage to both. There's no current treatment and although initially they thought my hearing could get worse, they now don't think that will happen, but they are monitoring me,” says Hames, who struggled to adapt to NHS-prescribed hearing aids but now successfully wears a state-of-the-art, Phonak Roger wireless system.
“My hearing may, of course, degenerate in the future when my condition is combined with the normal ageing process, but not for many years hopefully and by then research may have found a cure.”
Hearing loss is suffered by one in six people, of all ages, in the UK, but is commonly associated with ageing. Despite working in television, an industry where any sign of getting older is seen as unwelcome and potentially career-threatening, Hames is determined to speak out about her problem.
“I was amazed that hearing loss is so common and saddened that many people are reluctant to accept they have a problem or get it diagnosed because of it's association with ‘getting old',” she says.
“There's a stigma attached to hearing loss, but there shouldn't be. I was shy about admitting to it at first but now I think why should I be? I can work and live perfectly normally by wearing aids and know this needn't change your life. I'm determined it won't change mine.”
Hames, who had a burglary and the worry of her elderly mother's declining health to add to her woes in 2012, says: “I think I was in denial for around a year after the diagnosis, I had so much on my plate I couldn't really take it in, but then I had a short period of feeling depressed about my hearing loss. It was a ‘Why me' moment — it just seemed like I'd had one blow after another.”
Hames, who also works for charities campaigning to help women improve their personal safety and to support victims of stalking, says: “There's no need to suffer in silence if you have a hearing problem. I'd urge everyone to have a regular hearing test, in the same way they go for eye or dental checks.
“If there's something wrong, you can get effective help and if you don't want to tell people about your hearing loss, you needn't as the aids are so tiny nowadays.
“Technology is there and the quality of sound in even basic hearing aids is a big improvement on the past and can enormously enhance the quality of your life.
“After all, wearing glasses is perfectly acceptable and hearing aids should be viewed in just the same way.”