Ferrigno, who lost his hearing as a toddler due to ear infections, received a cochlear implant and “was hearing some sounds for the first time in my life”

By Julie Mazziotta
May 20, 2021 04:51 PM
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Lou Ferrigno
Lou Ferrigno
| Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez/FilmMagic

The moment when Lou Ferrigno had his cochlear implant put in was "like a wake-up call."

After dealing with hearing loss for nearly his entire life — the former Incredible Hulk star had multiple ear infections as a toddler that caused irreparable nerve damage in his ears — Ferrigno, 69, was "hearing some sounds for the first time."

"It was like a dream come true," he tells PEOPLE.

Ferrigno spent most of his life wearing unwieldy and often unhelpful hearing aids, and going to lip reading classes to be able to understand what people were saying to him.

"It's been an uphill battle for me because when you have severe hearing loss it affects your speech, it affects everything. So I had to work on both issues my whole life," he says.

Ferrigno was bullied growing up for his hearing aid and his speech impediment, and to escape the kids calling him deaf and mute, he dove into the Hulk and Spiderman comic books.

"I was obsessed with power," he says. "I wanted to be strong enough so that I could be able to defend myself."

That led him to a career in bodybuilding.

"It changed my life. It gave me drive and determination," he says. "I knew that this was my journey to be successful because if I hadn't discovered bodybuilding, I would have gone the other way, feeling sorry for myself and maybe resorting to drugs. It's all about taking action, because nobody can do that for you except for yourself."

Ferrigno trained with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the early 70s, and their rivalry led to his casting in The Incredible Hulk. The dad of three had to put in extra effort to keep up on set.

Lou Ferrigno
Lou Ferrigno as the Incredible Hulk
| Credit: CBS via Getty

"I knew I had to pay special attention because I had to constantly read lips," he says. "Sometimes on set the hearing aid malfunctions and I had to be treated like a hard of hearing person. And I never really wanted that sympathy. So over the years I ended up wearing two hearing aids instead of one, because I wanted to maximize whatever hearing I did have."

Over the years, Ferrigno has used a multitude of different hearing aids, but as he aged his hearing continued to decline. He knew a cochlear implant was a possibility, but it required a short surgery, which Ferrigno was hesitant to do.

A friend with similar hearing issues who decided to get a cochlear implant convinced Ferrigno to do it.

"When I saw a friend of mine do it, after what he's been through and what he's been suffering, I said, 'Why not do this? Why not get better?' Because my whole life it's been frustrating to not be able to hear," he says.

The surgery is a two-hour outpatient procedure with a small incision, but Ferrigno "was terrified."

"Once you get the cochlear implant surgery, you have to wait three or four weeks before it becomes activated. So that means you're completely deaf in that ear until they activate it, so I was just hoping that it would work."

The day that it was activated was emotional for Ferrigno.

"When she gave it to me, I was hearing some sounds for the first time," he says. "The whole thing just lit up. It was quite an experience."

Ferrigno works on his hearing each day with an app on his phone that gives him practice exercises, but after just seven weeks his hearing clarity has gone from 20% to 65%.

"My hearing is getting better and better and better, it's constantly improving," he says. "I told my doctor that I want to get up to 85% clarity."

And Ferrigno wants others with hearing loss to know that the same is possible for them.

"My goal is to let everyone know that I'm wearing this and that it gives them hope, because there's a lot of people nervous about doing this. Because they keep thinking that it's a major operation," he says. "But I want people know that there's hope. You can make your life much easier, so why not go for it."