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  • Sarah Appel (she/her), Eli Stuart (they/them)

"House" Takes on the Cochlear Implant Debate–and Fails Pretty Miserably

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

[ Image Description: Cover Image is of a white man in his 40s with brown hair and a thin beard that has some white/gray hair in a bright yellow short-sleeve short reading "DOC" in black, bold, and all caps text in the middle of the shirt. He has handcuffs on his hands. The name of the show is to the right, reading "HOUSE MD" in all caps.]

Watching season 5/episode 22 of House, I had a similar feeling to the time I watched my neighbor’s pet snake swallow a mouse whole: Absolute disgust, and yet I was unable to look away.

Let’s recap: “A House Divided” centers around a young Deaf wrestler, Seth. After he collapses screaming at a wrestling match, House and the other doctors search for the cause of his distress. All the while, House struggles with a hallucination of a dead doctor. (I’ll be honest: This is the first–and last–full episode of House that I’ve watched, so I don’t really know who anyone is. My credentials? Two cochlear implants. And also 18 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy.)

What should be a simple medical mystery storyline spirals into an anti-Deaf screed that’s as bananas inaccurate as it is shockingly insensitive. It’s one of those classic “hearing people struggling to understand that a lot of Deaf people don’t want cochlear implants” storylines, with bonus condescension, violation, and illegality.

Throughout the episode, the doctors (and eventually, Seth’s mother) make incredibly audist statements. (Audism is discrimination or prejudice against Deaf or hard-of-hearing people.) “Anything I can simulate with a three-dollar pair of earplugs is not a culture,” says one of the doctors. Pretty much the only defense of Deaf culture we get is Olivia Wilde saying, “The patient doesn’t want an implant because he’s comfortable with who he is. It’s admirable,” she simpers unconvincingly. Later, the doctors hover outside Seth’s hospital room as he and his girlfriend (also Deaf, played by Treshelle Edmond, who’s about the only bright spot in the episode) chat about homecoming. House bangs on the glass, but they don’t respond (because they’re Deaf, get it?), so he says, “It’s like the zoo,” which is a fun thing to say about two Deaf teenagers.

So that’s bad, right? But wait, because it gets way, way worse!

While Seth is under anesthesia for a brain biopsy, House makes a spur of the moment decision, telling the surgeon, “Why are you closing? Let’s put in a cochlear implant.” Completely ignoring how immoral (and illegal) this is for a moment, can I just say…that’s not how it works? As a bilateral cochlear implant user, I’ve had this surgery twice, and this guerilla procedure is not even remotely plausible. First, implant surgeons are highly trained subspecialists–random doctors can’t just tack it on a la carte to other procedures. Second, cochlear implants are very specialized devices–they’re not just sitting around in the surgical storage cabinet like extra gauze. Third, this kid is in the throes of a complicated health crisis, and now you’re performing another major surgery without his consent? In real life, these guys would get sued into retirement. (And they would not get reimbursed by insurance.)

(A point of clarification: House is under the influence of a hallucination of a dead doctor at this point, so he’s obviously not totally in his right mind. This hallucination later compels him to cause an allergic reaction in one of the other doctors, so the writers clearly aren’t endorsing the actions he takes in this episode. But the writers do take care to include a scene where he feels remorse over the allergic reaction, but not the spontaneous implant surgery. So we, as viewers, are meant to understand the allergic reaction as a step too far, not the surgery. It’s pretty messed up!)

[Image Description: Two characters are sitting in a bath tub, each holding an entire bottle of wine. On the left is a young white woman with blonde hair and is wearing a doctor's coat. The right has the man descried in the cover image, a white man in his 40s who is wearing a suit jacket and button up shirt. They are toasting one another. The dead doctor mentioned above is the woman in the picture. Dr. House is the man in this picture and the cover image.]

To soothe House’s unbelievably minor pangs of regret over this reckless decision, Dr. Wilson says, “It was nice…You didn’t do it to solve the case. You didn’t do it to save his life. You did it to make his life better. It was a caring act.” (Let the record show that I gave my computer the middle finger during this scene. Performing nonconsensual surgery on a kid because you don’t understand his language or identity is not a “caring act.”) What’s especially galling is that Wilson acts as House’s moral compass in this show (from what I can gather from YouTube clips, at least). The fact that the character we look to to render moral judgment–and the character who acts, at least in some capacity, as a proxy for the viewer–supports House’s actions is infuriating.

If House’s scintilla of doubt about the surgery looks like the brink of self-reflection, rest assured that it’s not. “I gave that idiot an implant to prove to him what an idiot he’s been,” House says, charmingly. About ten minutes later, Seth physically rips the implant out of his head. (I don’t think that’s actually possible, but again, we’re throwing medical accuracy to the wind here, people, keep up!) The show does its absolute best to convince viewers that the surgery is anything other than what it is–a violent violation of Seth’s autonomy and identity and culture.

I’d like to add that Seth wakes up from the biopsy with a surgeon turning his implant on. (Fact check: Audiologists, not surgeons, do that, and you have to wait a few weeks after the surgery to turn implants on, but House can’t be bothered with facts.) How incredibly terrifying that would be–to wake up from a painful medical procedure, disoriented, with a clueless surgeon trying to give him the gift of sound. (There are air quotes around “gift of sound,” in case it wasn’t clear.) A lot of hearing people have the misconception that cochlear implants give people their sense of hearing back. Actually, what cochlear implants do is turn sound into electrical signals, which a person must learn to translate back into sound (or an approximation of it, anyway). That process of learning to translate electrical signals into sound is a long one–it’s taken me eight years to feel as comfortable with my right-side implant as I do now, and I’m still getting used to my left-side implant.

(Complete side note for any deaf person who wants a laugh in the midst of this bleak, bleak episode: The audiology equipment in this scene is hilarious. I think it’s literally just an old Mac keyboard hot glued to an audio mixer.)

Okay, so things are bad! After having his language and culture continually demeaned by esteemed medical professionals, said esteemed medical professionals perform an off-the-cuff cochlear implant surgery. Seth’s mom is not happy about this. Or is she? is the question the show decides to devote its energy to answering. At first she seems pretty angry at the doctors, and it seems like we might be shaping up for a legal battle. Then House, thinking he can soften her stance with a little mom guilt, says, “You wanted your son to hear. You just didn’t have the guts to make him get the implant.” Seth’s mom, to her credit, sticks by her guns and tells House that once Seth is stable, she wants the implant removed.

Meanwhile, the script paints Seth’s girlfriend Laura as the “good” deaf patient–one who would choose an implant if only she could. She tries to convince him to love his surprise implant, saying, “I wish I could get an implant too…It’s a great thing. It’s going to open up a whole new world for you” (which definitely sounds like something a teenager would say). At every turn, the writers seem determined to portray Seth as a stubborn and unreasonable kid who’s been corrupted by radical Deaf Pride ideals or something, when actually he’s completely justifiably angry.

Anyway, the doctors finally figure out what’s wrong with Seth, and I thanked every deity I knew that the episode was over. Except it wasn't, and we get maybe the most appalling scene of the whole episode, which is really saying something.

As Seth lies in his hospital bed recovering, his mother says, “I’m going to tell your doctors to repair your implant.”

(This is where my brain exploded all over my laptop, in case you’re wondering.)

“You always said that was my decision,” says Seth.

“And then you ripped it out rather than live with it for a few days, even,” she says, as if she were scolding him for not even trying the asparagus, Seth. “I’m your mother. This is my call. I don’t know if I’m making the right one, but it’s mine to make.” And we end the episode there, with the forces of Deaf Pride heroically vanquished by cold, hard common sense. If only these Deaf people could see, like Seth’s mom, how illogical they’re being!

I truly believe that if this was filmed with different lighting and a screechy soundtrack, it would make a pretty good horror movie. It’s a story about the loss of autonomy, the uneven power dynamics between doctors and disabled people, and how pride in your identity can’t save you in the face of medical professionals and even family turning against you. It’s an incredibly grim story, but House doesn’t seem to see it that way. It’s chilling that the hero of this episode is Seth’s mother, and that even though Seth is–rationally, morally–absolutely right, he is cast as naive and stubborn.

I think it’s telling that the two Deaf actors in this episode–Treshelle Edmond and Ryan Lane–use the bent-v version of the sign for cochlear implant, which has a more negative connotation than the u-handshape or fingerspelled versions. Maybe it was their way of signaling that they knew how utterly ridiculous this episode was–a sort of wink-wink to Deaf viewers that they were in on the joke. If so, vive la résistance.

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