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Sept 2018 Winnipeg Free Press

The best part of marking a medical milestone? The patients’ stories. The next best part? Beaming smiles from surgeons and hospital staff as they reconnect with patients they haven’t seen in years.

Health Sciences Centre hosted a family barbecue to mark a surgical milestone for the province. In June, surgeons completed the 250th cochlear implant, which restored hearing for some 236 people with profound hearing loss, the kind that hearing aids can’t help. Some patients received two implants.

"Since the initiation of this program, we’ve been very proud of its success. This winter we implanted our youngest patient ever," said Dr. Jordan Hochman, director of the implant program. HSC recruited Hochman from Toronto in 2009 to put the program together. That patient was a baby just 10 months old.

Mathew Spears

Mathew Spears, 6, a cochlear implant recipient, with his mother, Erin. Mathew is one of more than 200 patients who gathered at Waverly Heights Community Centre to celebrate after HSC Surgical Hearing Implant Program reached the milestone of having performed 250 implants.

Having the surgery here spared families trips outside the province, for months on end ahead of surgery and afterward for recovery sessions with audiologists and speech therapists. The Winnipeg team has two surgeons, one for adults and another for paediatric patients. It also has something else: a novel educational tool that allows the surgical team to practice an operation step by step before the patient is wheeled into the OR. The physical, virtual and augmented reality simulations were developed in Manitoba. "We built the tools to take and to create models for pre-op rehearsals," Hochman said.The tricky part of the surgery is to implant an electrode into a nerve that is embedded in bone behind the ear, a vertical space just two millimetres long. "Our program is as strong as any program anywhere," the surgeon said.

Mathew Spears, 6, lost his hearing to a complication of meningitis at 19 months old. He’d just started talking and had a vocabulary of 10 words when he lost the sense of hearing.

"A month after the surgery, they activated the (implant’s) processors... and activated the microphone attached to his ear," said his mother Erin Spears as Mathew sat patiently on his dad’s lap at a media event before the barbecue. It took months of work with the hospital’s audiologist and hearing centre staff to calibrate the implant to the exact pitch so Mathew could interpret the signals into sound. When it happened it changed everything. "It’s huge," his mother said. "It’s just like a child learning a language all over again. And it was a huge relief. We’re able to carry on conversations, as usual," she said.

Dr. Sally Longstaffe is a noted Winnipeg pediatrician who built her career at the same time she lost her hearing, bit by bit over decades. Doctors first diagnosed her hearing loss 25 years ago, before the implants were invented. "Those were the days when there was nothing they could do. I was told to go on with my life," she recalled. Longstaffe relied on hearing aids and became skilled at lip-reading and the use of verbal repetition in order to carry on her practice. "I was lucky to get in when I did. I had almost no hearing at all and a month after (the surgery), they hooked it up and it was life-changing. I heard the leaves rustling in the trees and I was weeping for joy.” Most precious of all, she can hear her grandchildren again. Children's voices are higher pitched than adults and their chatter had been lost to their grandmother — until the surgery.

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