May 2018 News 24
For 25 long years he was trapped in a world of silence. Even though Michael Swartz was born deaf he’d made his mark as a swimmer, horse rider, fire dancer and model. Still, as he got older he felt more and more like an outsider and tried to take his life on more than one occasion. But now he’s grateful that he survived to see his lifelong dream come true – to be able to hear. After two unsuccessful ear implants in his left ear he thought that he would be deaf forever. But four months ago an audiologist at Cape Town’s Tygerberg Hospital found the electric circuits in his ear implants merely needed to be adapted for the nerves in his ear to work properly. And then, sound broke though the silence. For the first time in his life he can hear his own voice as well as that of his loved ones.
"Ironically, after 25 years, when Michael got his hearing the very people that stood by him and were always there weren’t there when it actually happened," says his mother, Sandy, 60, who’s visiting from East London. Chatting on the stoep of a hotel in Sea Point, Cape Town, where Michael works as a waiter and barman; he wears a round badge with the words "I am deaf" on it. Although he’s now able to hear due to the cochlear implant the audiologist had installed, after a quarter of a century of silence he still needs to get used to the sounds of spoken words. He also still needs to learn to say the words he’s been expressing using sign language for all these years. "I talk less with my hands if I can see that people understand me," Michael says.
He was four months old when his mother, Sandy, a nurse, and her husband, Jack, 81, a stud farmer from East London, suspected the worst. That day Sandy dropped a heavy pot – but while his sister, Melissa (then 5), jumped back in fright, Michael appeared completely unbothered as he drank his bottle. An ear-nose-throat specialist later confirmed that Michael, the youngest of the couple’s four children, was in fact totally deaf. At the age of three he received his first cochlear implant at a clinic in Johannesburg but he still couldn’t hear anything. He went to a normal school for Grades 1 and 2 but from Grade 3 attended various schools for the deaf. After Grade 7 Sandy started home-schooling her son. After his parents had raised funds from community members and family Michael went back to the clinic at age 18 for a second cochlear implant, which cost about R280 000.
Doctors confirmed that he had no nerve endings in his right ear, which would make an implant completely useless. And when the old cochlear implant was removed from his left ear doctors found the nerve endings were badly damaged and warned that a second attempt at using a cochlear implant would also be unsuccessful. Nonetheless, Michael and Sandy insisted they go ahead with it. But after the operation he still couldn’t hear anything.
The scars and wounds on his forearms attest to the disappointment and loneliness of growing up as a deaf person. At the age of 21 he jumped in front of a speeding car on a busy East London highway in an attempt to end his life, says Sandy, but escaped unharmed.
"I want to live all my life. I have more to live for," says Michael, who’s happy with his life partner Jordan Clarke, 26. They met in 2014 at a club in East London, where Jordan spoke to him using sign language. Jordan had learnt to sign at his church. Then Jordan moved to Cape Town where he now works at a Camps Bay guesthouse. Michael followed him to Cape Town. In January this year Michael went to see a doctor, complaining that he was seeing flashing lights at the side of his head.
The GP referred him to Tygerberg Hospital – which is where Michael crossed paths with the audiologist who would change his life. Now he can finally hear he enjoys listening to music.
Michael says: "I can even hear birds…"