Whatever happened to ... the guitarmaker who was losing his hearing?


Doug Fields in his guitar-building studio. (Courtesy of Doug Fields)
September 22, 2011

One Saturday morning six years ago, Doug Fields awoke to a roaring sound and an alarming deafness in his left ear. Worse was the distortion of sounds: Murmurs were suddenly intolerably loud. A short time later, Fields would learn the cause of his tinnitus: The pressure of fluids had built up in his inner ear and ruptured membranes in his cochlea. There is no remedy.

A lover and player of music, Fields, a 47-year-old neuroscientist who lives in Silver Spring, had in his spare time greatly enjoyed building stringed instruments.

Suddenly, he found himself wondering how he would be able to play and enjoy music through this incessant din, let alone create instruments.

The profoundness of his dilemma forced him to realize what music meant to him. He wrote about it in a2007 Washington Post Magazine article. At that time, he began to think of the instrument he was then building — a simple classical guitar — as his last.

Since that morning six years ago, Fields’s tinnitus has neither worsened nor abated. Loud noise still causes pain.

Only now, he said, he functions relatively well with the use of one ear.

“It is amazing what you can get used to, given no choice,” Fields says. “The biggest difficulty is in noisy environments. ... but I position myself automatically now so that my good ear is oriented in the best direction.”

There are other considerations. He has trouble locating the origin of sounds, “so when someone in the house says, ‘I’m over here,’ I have to ask, ‘Where?’ ” And there are more dangerous concerns. “I cannot hear people or traffic coming from the left side, and this has resulted in several near-misses,” he says.

But in losing his hearing, Fields says, he has gained powerful insights:

“I have come to better appreciate how people cope with disability. ... Many people, especially the elderly, do so gallantly all around us.”

Fields says he also focuses more now on what is most meaningful to him. He has managed to maintain some of the passions — namely, music and mountain climbing — he had worried he would lose, albeit with adjustment. And he has even added new ones.

“Seize the day,” he instructs. “I try to pack in as much as possible into my life now, and by that I mean experiences and relationships, not things.”

Through it all, he never stopped building guitars. And he continues to play the instrument, but with a passion as never before. He is taking lessons, studying genres from classical to jazz.

One of Fields’s two daughters recently took up guitar and “invited me to play guitar with her at open-mike night at her college, which was an amazing experience for me,” Fields says. “We didn’t know it was being judged, but we won first place.”

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