HearingMay 2017 , Derek Parker (writer and critic), The Weekend Australian

It says much that surgery to implant the bionic ear is no longer considered newsworthy. Thousands of people in Australia are walking around with one, and that is largely due to Bill Gibson, known widely as “the Prof” by many of those he has helped to achieve a normal life.

He is not widely known outside medical circles, and this book is meant to remedy that. Gibson readily co-operated with Tina Allen, an experienced medical scientist and writer, but he sometimes seems a bit bemused about the project. He simply is not the celebrity type. He is the type who goes fishing with mates and dresses up as Santa Claus for children’s parties.

Although he seems very Australian, he was in fact born in Britain. He comes from a family of doctors and there was never much doubt that he would become one. He studied in Britain, where he gained his qualifications, and was drawn to audiology because of the breakthroughs taking place in the field. In particular, Graeme Clark and his team in Melbourne were examining ways of using new technology to help deaf people, focusing on the cochlea, the part of the ear that passes sounds to the brain. There was already a primitive version of the bionic ear available but it provided only a dot-dash sort of sound. Developing this into a multi-channel device that could convert sounds into electronic impulses that the brain could “hear” was a huge step forward. Gibson came to Australia in 1983 to follow it up, seeing the opportunity to knit his surgical expertise to the device.

Allen is adept at explaining the technology and how it evolved from its shaky beginnings, growing from rough experiments to a commercial model. In 1984 Gibson implanted the device in two women who had lost their hearing, with good results. Further refinements of the device followed and the surgical procedure became more routine. There were, inevitably, failures as the medical teams learned more about distinguishing between patients who were suitable for implants and those who were not but there was a sense of solid progress. The device became compact and Gibson developed a way to implant it using a small incision rather than a large C shaped one.

The first generation of recipients were people who had lost their hearing in adulthood. This meant they understood the concept of speech and of spoken communication. Gibson formed the view that while restoring hearing to adults was important, the focus should be on young people, even children, who had been deaf from birth and so had never learned to speak. By the age of seven or so the speech organs had effectively atrophied.

Gibson eventually chose a four-year-old girl for an implant, which involved convincing medical regulators that the process was ethical and practical. It worked, and the little girl learned to both understand and use speech. Gibson was able to leverage the success to push the age threshold downwards, to children under the age of two. Along the way he helped establish CICADA — Cochlear Implant Club and Advisory Association — a group than enables implant recipients to meet regularly, providing support to each other and feedback to doctors. (This biography was commissioned by CICADA.)

As the success rate improved it became easier to obtain funding for specialist facilities and post-op therapy. But there was one group that criticised and attacked Gibson, as well as others in the bionic ear circle. The Signing Deaf group took the view that congenital deafness should not be seen as a disease to be “cured”. Instead, the focus should be on teaching deaf children about signing, which should itself be seen as a valid alternative language. Allen notes this idea is difficult to understand but she acknowledges that it is deeply held by some. Gibson, for his part, listened to the view and was sympathetic to the idea of removing any trace of social stigma from deafness. But he looked more to the real-world picture, which was largely of people delighted to be able to participate fully in the world.

Eventually, Gibson notched up more than 2000 implant operations. As he nudged 70 he began to move out of the surgical side, but at 73 he still assists and consults. He thinks of retirement, apparently, as dropping down a gear rather than switching off the engine.

This is a fascinating story but, as biographies go, there is not much in the way of narrative tension. Basically, Gibson has lived a good life filled with good works. Nearly everyone who has had anything to do with him has only warm words to say. Judging from the photos included in the book, he and his wife of many years remain deeply bonded. So if you want to read about personal sturm und drang or this month’s celebuwreck, then this book is not for you. But if you want to find out about how the world was made a better place, then it is a good place to go.

April 2017 The Daily News

Sometimes the noise in the gym is overbearing with the crowd yelling, student sections chanting and the band playing at full volume. But when Connor Ortman’s earpiece falls out, there is no volume for him. Despite being on the basketball court in the middle of all the noise, his world is total silence. The noise comes back as he pushes his cochlear implant back in while running back down the basketball court on defence. Born completely deaf, Ortman, Norway’s dominant junior guard, was named this year’s recipient of the Gil Heard Courageous Athlete Award. The award is given to UP athletes who have overcome disabilities or hardship through sports. Through his play on the court, Ortman has made one thing loud and clear: his hearing impairment hasn’t hindered his athletic ability.

Ortman was diagnosed with the hearing impairment at two years old. The cochlear implant gives him the gift of hearing, but it doesn’t completely solve his impairment. The challenge to communicate has made him an expert lip-reader, even in the middle of close, chaotic basketball games. 

Connor OrtmanOrtman has played basketball since second grade and has had pretty much the same teammates since then, including his best friend Josh Plante.

“Me and JP have been best friends since Kindergarten. Sometimes I can hear coach Leiker in the game and sometimes it’s so loud he’ll have JP tell me what to do,” Ortman said. “Having someone like JP who understands what I have to go through and what I’ve had to deal with, it’s nice for JP to have to do that for me, and for Coach Leiker.

“The most challenging thing about it is that it always comes off every now and then, just going for rebounds or taking a shot, all that,” Ortman said of the cochlear implant. “Thanks to my parents — my parents have been there ever since I found out I was deaf. We decided I should wear a headband and see if it would help (hold the implant in place). Thanks to Coach (Ben) Leiker, Coach (Jeff) Gallino and all the other coaches I’ve had and to my teammates I’ve had, I just couldn’t do it without them.”

Leiker, Norway’s varsity basketball coach, said despite the hearing impairment, Ortman is the team’s leader. “He’s never lived without it so I don’t think he knows any different. He had a great season this year,” Leiker said. “We really needed him to score. He rebounded well. He led us in both rebounding and scoring and field goal percentage. He can play outside and inside.”

When Connor heard sound for the first time, at about three years old, the world became his playground. “It was quite a … just like all the YouTube videos, their eyes get large,” Amy said of Connor’s first moment hearing sound. “I do remember him running around the house, flushing toilets and turning on faucets. He never knew that the rain made noise or that the leaves blowing in the wind made noise. It was a while of auditory discoveries after that.” Connor has a strong bond with his 11-year-old brother Alex, because they both have the same hearing impairment. Alex, whom Steve said is a “pretty good athlete,” wears the same cochlear implant. “I just hope everything goes well for him. I know he can do a lot of great things,” Connor said. “I’m just proud to be a big brother for him and be a role model for him.”

May 2017 Adelaide Advertiser

As a parent, there is nothing quite like hearing your child’s laughter. The joy in it. Its spontaneity and carefreeness. It is this sound that Daniel Carr loves most. Especially so because, for 30 years, his world has been soundless. Diagnosed as profoundly deaf at 11 months, Daniel, now 41, discarded his hearing aids as a pre-teen and has heard not a sound since then. Until now.

After much thought, he decided to get a cochlear implant. Daniel has a long road ahead to learn how to listen to the world and to recognise words and sounds but he is not going through that journey alone. His three-year-old son, Jeremy, was also born profoundly deaf, and they received their cochlear implants three weeks apart. “I love hearing the kids laugh,” Daniel says.

It has been particularly moving for Daniel’s wife, Felicia Wee, 41, to watch both husband and son turn on their cochlear implants. 

Carr family While the decision to give Jeremy an implant was a relatively easy one, Daniel’s decision to get one himself was not. “I’d been saying ‘no’ to the idea for so long,” he explains. “My personality and my sense of self, I had developed over the years. “When I started in high school, I stopped wearing my hearing aid for a few different reasons — they weren’t very effective and it was probably peer pressure at the time because I felt very self-conscious using them. “I started lip reading from the age of one, and from the age or 11 or 12 I was relying solely on lip reading and I became very good at that. “I’ve been working full-time for 20 years, I’ve travelled around the world, I’ve married and raised a family and I’ve done all those things with just lip reading. “My sense of self was defined and I thought getting an implant would change that.

“But I got to a point, where I thought it was time to try something new and go on a new adventure.”

And now, that adventure involves not only a lot of auditory verbal therapy, but trying to make sure his pre-schooler son doesn’t drop his sound processor into water. “One of our biggest fears is that he will drop it in the toilet,” Daniel says with a laugh. “I take mine off to bathe the kids, and afterwards, he comes up and reminds me to put mine back on: ‘Daddy, put yours on’ he’ll say to me.”

Jeremy’s deafness was picked up in the routine neonatal hearing testing soon after birth.

He started therapy at the Cora Barclay Centre at three months of age and by nine months was using two of the most powerful hearing aids available. But even then, he was struggling to hear. “He’s a bright boy but compared with his peers he was struggling and he was working really hard to understand people,” Daniel says. “He was only two but he was doing a lot of lip reading.

“We talked to people, did research, and the general picture people was telling us what that the cochlear implant would give him the chance to really fly.”

Cora Barclay Centre auditory verbal therapist Rachael Ward has been working with Jeremy since he was a baby. “The implant gives him good access to all of the sounds of speech required to develop spoken language,” she says, adding that two months after “switch on”, he’s making fantastic progress and is now speaking in six-word sentences, using plurals (although not all the time) and has begun asking “why?” questions. “He’s really demonstrating much more accurate imitation of words, the clarity is coming already — words are getting clearer and clearer.

“He still has a long way to go but it’s great.”

Jeremy CarrDaniel and Felicia appreciated the help they received from government services who walked them through the options available under the NDIS. “Each provider also came to visit us,” Daniel says.

“They each have their own approach in focusing on oral, signing or a mixture of both, so you can choose one that is the best fit for your child and your family. “I do believe that the Australian system offers a world-class level of choice for parents of children with deafness.” Now with his implant, everything the 41-year-old software engineer hears is louder than normal because his brain is yet to learn how to filter out the noises he doesn’t need to focus on. And by everything, it literally means everything — his wife sniffing her nose, someone breathing, paper rustling. “The microphone is very sensitive, it picks up everything and all the things that you would normally tune out — like people breathing, even clothes moving — I’m hearing all of that and my brain doesn’t know how to tune it out,” Daniel says. “It’s going to take me a couple of years to learn.”

This is different from his son, who has adapted quickly. “Jeremy already knows words that people are saying but, for me, it’s all just a lot of background noise,” Daniel says. “I probably wouldn’t have done it if he wasn’t getting one; Jeremy is definitely part of the reason.” Father and son — bonded forever by the amazing sounds of their world. Especially their laughter.

April 2017 The West Australian

Three generations of a Perth family are living proof of the big gains that come from science, all gifted with hearing thanks to Australian medical research. The cochlear implant has transformed the lives of 69-year-old Leslie French, his 42-year-old daughter Jody Maitland and 13-year-old grandson Hayden. Born with major hearing loss, the three can now hear voices on the phone, dogs barking and even the sound of footsteps and a ticking clock. While they all had the same surgeon, Ear Science Institute of Australia director Marcus Atlas, their operations came at different stages in their lives.

Mr French was the first to have an implant in 2005 soon after he retired, and in 2006 his wife Kathy persuaded their daughter Jody to go down the same path. “I had been wearing hearing aids since I was young but after I became a mother I realised how much I wasn’t hearing, like the sound of my child in the next room,” Mrs Maitland said. “My mother made me realise how much I was missing out on, especially after seeing the difference it made to Dad, and having the cochlear implant just changed my life and for the first time I could talk on the phone.” 

Maitland familyHayden Maitland with his mum Jody Maitland and grandfather Leslie French at the new Ralph and Patricia Sarich Neuromuscular Research Institute at QE11.

Mrs Maitland’s eldest son was diagnosed with deafness at four years old, and after his hearing continued to decline he received a cochlear implant when he was 10. “I never reached my potential in my career, and with Hayden I didn’t want him to struggle and miss out on things,” Mrs Maitland said. “Since he had his implant his school grades have gone from Cs and Ds to As and Bs.”

The ear institute is one of four neurological research groups coming under one roof in Perth.

The Sarich Neuroscience Research Institute at the QEII Medical Centre is the brainchild of neurosurgeon Professor Bryant Stokes and is named after Ralph and Patricia Sarich, who donated $20 million. Apart from ear research, the $37 million facility will house Curtin University’s Neuroscience Research Laboratory, the Perron Institute for Translational and Neuroscience Research and the Australian Alzheimer’s Research Foundation.