The First Thing This Man Heard After Turning On His Cochlear Implant Was His Partner Proposing

“Before, I knew he loved me, but now? It’s surreal. He’s there.”

Earlier this year, Kerry, 37, and his boyfriend Hayward, 27, went on a vacation to San Francisco to visit family. Little did they know, the trip would turn their entire world upside down. Hayward contracted bacterial meningitis during their stay and was hospitalized for three weeks. He recovered, but lost his hearing permanently.

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Bacterial meningococcal meningitis — spread by prolonged contact with a carrier and particularly saliva transfer, through sharing food, water, or kissing — can be fatal, even if it’s detected quickly. The bacteria causes a fast-moving, widespread infection that results in inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.

Although a vaccine exists, several college campuses have reported outbreaks of meningitis B in the last few years. According to the CDC, meningococcal outbreaks are still very rare in the US, with fewer than 300 cases reported per year.

Hayward initially noticed something was wrong after returning home from the trip when he developed a headache and sensitivity to light that even migraine medication couldn’t help. When his symptoms worsened, the couple rushed to the hospital.

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Because the couple had been drinking wine that evening, Kerry at first believed the symptoms were simply a result of excessive drinking or dehydration.

Hayward recalled seeing something about a meningitis outbreak on the news prior to their trip, but wasn’t familiar with the disease. “We didn’t know anything about it, so we ignored it.”

Hayward’s condition declined rapidly. He temporarily lost his vision and became paralyzed from the hips down.

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He would spend three weeks in the hospital working to fully recover his sight and mobility.

“In a relationship, communication is key, you know? We were left without communication for about six months,” Kerry said.

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The six months were difficult for their couple, who have been dating for over three years. Hayward described his condition as “being in jail” in his own head.

“I could see everything that was going on — I could communicate, but the world couldn’t communicate back with me.”

The couple quickly learned as much American Sign Language (ASL) as possible so that they could communicate.

“He would place the ‘I love you’ sign on my leg or on my back, and that’s when I knew I could go to sleep,” Hayward recalled.

Hayward was recently approved to receive a cochlear implant, a device that replaces the function of the damaged inner ear, which would give the couple their communication back. Following the surgery, there is a period of recovery time before the device is actually turned on — which gave Kerry time to plan the perfect proposal.

“We had talked a little bit about getting married — well, signed about it, at least,” Kerry explained. “I wanted the first thing that I said to him to be asking for his hand.”

Kerry called the audiologist for approval beforehand and gathered some close friends and family for the big moment.

“I was in shock,” Hayward said. “I’m hearing all these click sounds, I’m hearing my brother speak, and I can hear Kerry, and the first thing that comes out of his mouth — it’s this big spiel about what we’ve been through and he’s down on one knee.”

The video has made the rounds on the internet, resulting in the couple even being recognized at the local grocery store and getting congratulations from strangers.

Although the past year was difficult at times, Hayward and Kerry are confident everything has made their relationship stronger. “Before, I knew he loved me, but now? It’s surreal. He’s there,” Hayward said. He also has a new appreciation for the little things in life. “I’ll stop and smell the roses, so to speak.”

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The couple is committed to learning ASL, even though Hayward now has the cochlear implant, to ensure they never have to go without communication again. “The deaf community rallied behind us and helped us a lot to get through that six-month period,” Kerry said.

While nothing is set in stone yet, the couple hopes to plan their big day around Mardi Gras in 2019, since their first date was around the same time.