First sounds

29 July, 2012
Reporter: Dr John D'Arcy
Producer: Ali Russell
Associate Producer: Kelly Hawke

Sunday Night followed three hearing impaired people on their life-changing journeys from silence into the world of sound, as they switched on new generations of bionic hearing devices.

Building on the first cochlear implants invented by groundbreaking Australian scientist Graeme Clark in the 1970s, new technologies are now transforming the lives of the deaf, both young and old.

Sunday Night's Dr John D’Arcy met with three extraordinary hearing impaired people to witness how this new technology has affected their lives, with inspiring vision of patients hearing for the first time.

Professor Clark’s discoveries in hearing technology have given the gift of sound to an estimated 220,000 profoundly deaf adults and children around the world. His passion for the cause was piqued at an early age as his father was deaf, and he battled resistance to his research from within the scientific community.

“Colleagues in Melbourne referred to me as ‘That clown Clark’. They said I was as likely to be successful as putting an electric light bulb into a body orifice and switching on the current,” he laughed.

29-year-old American mother of two Sarah Churman’s own ‘switch on’ moment became a YouTube sensation, with more than 13 million views at last count. The young mother sat stunned as her bionic hearing device - known as the Esteem - was activated, and she heard her own voice for the first time before bursting into tears of joy.

For Sydney mother Olivia Andersen, getting a cochlear implant was never something she wanted to do. Deaf since birth, she had never been interested in having her hearing repaired.

“I felt that I was coping well, and that if something was not broken, which was how I saw my life, there was no need to change it,” she explained.

But the prospect of motherhood, and of limited communication with her children, changed her mind. Olivia now says she wishes she’d made the switch years ago.

But the cost of the technology can still be prohibitive. When Sarah Churman learned the cost of just one bionic ear was $30,000, it was an impossible goal. It wasn’t until her mother-in-law cashed in her life savings to pay for the surgery that she was able to take the step that changed her life forever.

The situation can be even more difficult for those in less wealthy countries. 25-year-old Solomon Islands nursing student Stephen Heskibo lost his hearing after suffering a head injury at the age of five. Quietly determined, Stephen managed to complete his studies in a mainstream school without any of the deaf support services afforded to children in Australia, teaching himself to lip-read in four different languages.

It was only when AusAID volunteer Annette Kaspar met Stephen at a remote hospital and recognised his potential that he began his journey towards hearing again. Moved by Stephen's plight, Annette contacted Brisbane surgeon Chris Que Hee who agreed to perform Stephen's surgery free of charge. The $25,000 cochlear implant was also donated and Stephen flew to Australia for the operation, becoming the first Solomon Islander in history to get a cochlear implant.

Some useful links:

Hear For You
Olivia Andersen’s organisation that provides guidance and mentoring for deaf teenagers.

The Graham Clark Foundation
Professor Graeme Clark’s research foundation that also provides programs to support socially and financially disadvantaged adults and children with a hearing impairment.

Visit Cochlear Ltd or phone 1800 620 929.