Filling the void with sound

Rex Houghton, Elaine Secker and Lynsie Rich with their implants. Photo: Tracy Hardy.

Deafness robbed Lynsie Rich of her college years and a decent education. Although, at the time, they didn’t know to blame deafness.

“I was always getting into trouble,” recalls Lynsie.

She spent half her high school years in the naughty corner, out in the hallway.

“All the teachers babbled, I couldn’t understand them.” Even Lynsie’s mother, who was a teacher, didn’t pick it up.

“I was deaf,” she explains.

It’s just one poignant story to come out of the Bay of Plenty Cochlear Implant Consumers Group – a very matter-of-fact clinical tag for a bunch of people with what can be a common isolating affliction and an expensive hi-tech fix.

“We’ve all had cochlear implants. It’s comforting and supportive to share with people who’ve been through it and understand it. Because it can be quite frightening.”

Frightening, says Lynsie, because a device has to be surgically inserted in the skull and patient loses every bit of natural sound in that ear. And frightening because, as Lynsie says, it’s like someone saying they are going to amputate your foot and give you an artificial one.

To the uninitiated, the cochlear implant may appear like a minute satellite dish attached the skull – it’s the full bionic look. Often it’s hidden by the wearer’s hair but it can also be quite visible and worn as a kind of badge of honour.

Lynsie’s is pink and sparkling. She’s quite proud of it.

The external component, a microphone and processor, straddles the ear. That picks up the sounds, and selects and arranges them. They are fed to a transmitter which is attached to the internal device on the side of the head behind the ear by magnet.

The internal component, the receiver/stimulator, converts the signals into electric impulses and dispatches them to the auditory nerve.

While hearing aids amplify sound so it can be detected by damaged ears, cochlear implants bypass the damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve.

Every one of the wearers has their own special eureka moment. Lynsie remembers hers well and the date: August 6, 2007.

“It was three weeks after my implant operation and I was all wired up to a computer.”

The technician was fiddling about and said “One, two, three.”

“And I said four, five, six.” She laughs.

The technician went “Oooh! What did you have for breakfast?” And Lynsie was able to respond. “Cereal and toast.”

There were howls of laughter and delight.

If Lynsie had been asked about breakfast before the implant she would have said ‘Eh?’ It had been her stock response.

“I could hear again and so much better than my hearing aids have ever been.”

So the woman whose hearing deteriorated from the moment she was born, who had been denied all the delights of sound that most of us take for granted, was hearing again.

When she and her husband were leaving the hospital that same day, he put the car in reverse.

“What’s that ding dong , ding dong?” she asked. She had been driving all her life, but had never heard the reverse alert on a car. There were other liberating moments – she didn’t need to take a scribbling block in the car to chat.

“I would talk my head off, but it was always a one sided conversation.” She never needed sub-titles on TV again.

But the sound is not as you and I know it. It doesn’t restore normal sound, but rather offers a deaf person a useful representation of the sounds about them and helps them understand speech.

“You have to learn or relearn listening. I explain that everyone sounds like Donald Duck. It took me three or four months before I was brave enough to pick up the phone.”

That’s why Robin Mathews, a speech and language therapist from Tauranga Hospital, was at this gathering to talk to wearers. “It was great having Robin along, someone who is interested in us, and having someone to listen to.”

Because, Lynsie says, a lot of deaf people have given up trying to listen to people.

There were about 10 “wearers” as they call themselves when The Weekend Sun dropped by a meeting at the Arataki Community Centre. And at $50,000 a pop – for the device and surgery – there was more than half a million dollars invested in one of the key senses in this one room alone.

But where there would have once been a soundless void, there was excited chatter, banter and laughter, chocolate biscuits and cups of tea.

“Not everyone has had my joy,” says Lynsie – because she is getting 100 per cent in some of her hearing tests now. “Some are still only getting 38 to 40 per cent so I am lucky, very lucky.”

If you are interested in contacting the consumers group, you can email Lynsie at philyn.rich@xtra.co.nz and in the subject line, ‘BoP Cochlear Implant Consumer Group’.