Feb 2017 Southern Daily Echo and Metro.co.uk

For fifty years Helen and Neil Robinson have lived in a silent world. Deaf from birth, the couple have only ever communicated through sign language, lip reading and frustrating attempts to use hearing aids. Now the pair have been successfully fitted with cochlear implants – the first time a couple has undergone the procedure in the history of the University of Southampton Audiology Implant Service (USAIS). As a result, Neil and Helen are now starting to hear for the first time together with everyday noises like a kettle boiling and listening to birdsong some of the most enjoyable sounds they are encountering. In fact Neil, 50, also credits his fledgling hearing to potentially saving his life having stepped out of the way of an oncoming car after hearing it before he saw it.

It was Helen, 54, who first tabled the idea of having the implant - the invention of which was celebrated on International Cochlear Implant Day on February 25. Neil was less convinced, but after two years of consideration he decided to ask his GP for a referral to see if he was suitable.

The couple, who have been married for almost 12 years and have raised a son, then started on their journey towards hearing for the first time. In the early days of January, the couple came back to the centre to have the devices switched on, something which proved to be an emotional experience that was captured on video – with Neil, 50, at first joking that he didn’t like the sound of his wife’s voice. 

Helen and Neil RobinsonThe couple, who live near Salisbury, Wiltshire, were born deaf due to their mothers contracting rubella during pregnancy. 

Neil, who is an Anglican curate said: “It felt incredible, in a happy way. It felt really emotional.”

Dr Mary Grasmeder joined USAIS in 1996, and explained how initially the device was thought to be only suitable for those who had recently lost hearing and had already developed speech and language skills. Similarly with children, the sooner the implant is fitted the better the outcome would be for them. Increasingly however, the service is now seeing referrals from people who have been deaf since birth but who are still getting significant benefits from the implant. Mary explained: “People who have been deaf for some time don’t have the same expectation of sound will be like compared with someone who has just lost their hearing. Because their auditory system is not so well developed it will be more difficult for them to process the information and to understand it.”

The experience of those people who decide to have cochlear implants having been deaf since birth is not easy to predict, and is the basis of new research at the University. Exactly how much Helen and Neil will eventually be able to hear remains unknown but both say they are delighted they made the decision to have the implant. Being able to hear has given Helen a new found confidence although the couple admit that they haven’t enjoyed every sound they are now experiencing. Neil jokingly said he didn’t really like the sound of Helen’s voice when he first heard it. “I am getting used to it now,” he added. In return Neil’s habit of playing a game on his phone whilst Helen is watching television is also one of her bug bears as she finds the noise “distracting”.

Both are also still learning what their names sound like when spoken. Neil, an avid jazz fan, is looking forward to hearing music for the first time and also seeing how his hearing affects his work as a priest at St Michael’s Church in the parish of Bemerton near Salisbury, whilst Helen says she looks forward to enjoying a presentation without having to look at the signing. Despite their new found sense, Neil said he still considers himself to be a deaf person. “I am deaf that is my culture. That won’t change. Having the cochlear implant has helped me, but it won’t change me. The gift of sound has given me independence,” he says.