Rep. David B. McKinley is thankful to hear birds chirping in the morning and wants others to have that opportunity.
The West Virginia Republican, who has a cochlear implant in his left ear, has made improving the lives of people like him a personal goal.
“I think I’m the only one ever in the history of this country that served in Congress with a cochlear,” he said. “I want to make sure that we don’t put people that have hearing impairments in the back of the bus. I refuse to have that happen.”
McKinley, 71, has audio sclerosis, which affects the bones in his ears and prevents sound from traveling. He couldn’t hear out of his left ear for almost 40 years before he got the implant in December 2012. He uses a hearing aid in his right ear.
“I’m that unusual creature that has one of each,” the four-term congressman said. “I’ll likely have to get a cochlear on this side as well.”
Unlike a hearing aid, which amplifies sound, a cochlear implant bypasses damaged parts of the ear and sends electronic signals through the auditory nerve to the brain.
McKinely started working with the Department of Veterans Affairs after learning that civilians are four times more likely to get cochlear implants than veterans.
“You would think that the VA would bend over backwards to help people that have made that sacrifice as a result, but they’re not. I’m on a little bit of a mission right now … to try to correct that,” he said.
The issue goes beyond politics for McKinley.
“Society doesn’t recognize when you have hearing loss. They’re not very patient with you. They’ll tell you, ‘Listen more carefully, McKinley.’” he said. “Or ‘Move up in the front of the room.’ No. I’m too much of a Scotch-Irish person.”
First elected in 2010, McKinley recalled struggling during his first few years in Congress before getting the implant.
His doctor warned it might take longer to work for him because he had been deaf in that ear for so long.
“But that’s something they need to work on, too,” he said. He is pushing researchers to look at getting the brain to adapt faster to the implant.
Two months after getting the implant, he just heard sounds when the doctor turned it on.
“It got crackling noises. I remember it just drove me nuts, initially,” he said. “The crackling noise was like if you go into the theater and someone is trying to get to the bottom of the potato chip bag next to you and they keep digging in there. And you want to scream.”
He would work on it by listening to the radio without his hearing aid on his drives between D.C. and West Virginia.
“One day, I had a five-hour drive back to Wheeling. First, words start to come in,” he recalled. “What do you think the first words were? ‘White House.’ Go figure. Of all the things in my life I was going to hear, the first words were ‘White House.’ But then it just gradually continued to improve.”
In 2015, he was named co-chairman of the Congressional Hearing Health Caucus. Around that time, he had to fight for Congress to keep funding for bone-anchored hearing aids, known as BAHAs.
His 12-year-old grandson has one.
“The bureaucrats in Washington were saying it’s a hearing aid because that was the name of it. We don’t fund hearing aids,” he said. “I came back in August and pretty much threatened them, they better rethink that. You have to get off your high horse and work with us … and they did.”
Watch: As D.C. Celebrates Emancipation Day, Holmes Norton Pushes For Statehood
Correction 10 a.m. April 19 | An earlier version of this story contained the wrong date for when McKinley received his cochlear implant.