Kunal Amalean

KUNAL AMALEAN

 Good afternoon and thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to speak today. I am extremely grateful to be here. 

I would like to take a special moment as last week was a very special milestone that I would like to celebrate, because it was exactly 20 years ago in February 1999 when I had the surgery and implant on the right ear.

If you ask me what is the single biggest thing that has had an impact on me during the last two decades, I would say access to hearing and speech clarity.

At the age of nine, I spent seven months in Sydney with my Mum, who is here with me today, going through speech therapy classes. We also have my former speech therapist Lynne Richards from 20 years back. Hopefully she should be here today. I used to be very stubborn and annoy these two very special ladies because at the time I didn’t understand why speech therapy was so important. But now I’m extremely thankful to Lynne for being able to keep me entertained throughout the sessions.

After we went back in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where I spent the next ten years, it was interesting growing up there. The constant traffic noise, the humidity, the school classrooms all were not exactly equipped to support my hearing environment. We had these concrete floors with metal chairs and thin classroom walls all the way up to the fifth floor where I could hear the piano playing on the ground floor every morning every day. It was very distracting, very noisy. Young teachers didn’t quite understand how to handle a hearing impaired child. But with the constant support from the principal of the school and my parents, they made an effort to meet with the teachers ahead of time and prepare me with enough material so that I would understand the subject well enough before school began.

I loved playing sports and being outdoors. I tried as the best as I could. It was a constant struggle with the humidity in Sri Lanka that early on my sound processors would often break down. So I was then using a loaner device with a different map, and it would take me about three months before the processors were fixed and returned back to me.

One day I had a very interesting encounter in Dubai airport. You know the first processor that I had was the Nucleus Sprint body worn sound processor. As you can see from the image, it used to be strapped around my stomach and waist. As I was going through the security check the guards stopped me as they felt the processor. Immediately they started panicking and sent me to another room for a strip search. At the time I was scared and started sweating. He asked me what the processor was. I said that it helps me hear and that without the processor I cannot hear. He said, ‘I am so sorry, sir, I got scared because I thought it was a bomb’.

Now we are in 2019. I spent six years in Boston for my university studies and working in start-up companies, spent one and a half years in Indonesia and four years in Sri Lanka. I am now working in the family business in clothing manufacturing, more specifically in the IT and software part of the business.

I am now 29, turning 30 in about two months’ time in April. I decided to go for the bilateral cochlear implant on the left ear. I figured this is the beginning of the new decade, turning over a new leaf, getting the new ear, the timing couldn’t have been any better.

Mum and I came to Sydney in November last year, and we had the successful surgery on the left ear thanks to Cathy Birman. Now it has been exactly 12 weeks since the switch-on. I now have the latest Nucleus 7 sound processor. It is an incredible device which also has a bluetooth streaming feature. Finally I’m able to have an app on the phone itself to control the volume and other settings rather than having a separate remote, separate cables and wires. They used to give me such a big headache back then.

The first impressions are amazing. Initially the first two weeks I could not hear the sounds as much. It had been 20 years since the left ear was used and it had been inactive. Luckily, before I had the cochlear implant on the right ear, I wore Phonak hearing aids on both ears when I was a little kid. So amazingly, the brain was able to pick up where the sound waves had previously left off. 

The right cochlear implant has always been my strongest dominant ear. I use the right ear to rely on speech, language, listening and communication. And I now use the left ear to help me with the sound localisation. Now each week I have grown to become a lot more comfortable with the new sounds on the left ear, although I still hear robotic static-like sounds which makes me feel like they come from a different planet.

I would like to share a few examples. I notice that back in Sri Lanka when I was driving on the left side of the car my stronger implant used to be on the right. So it was hard to participate in a conversation in the car especially when you have a lot of people talking at the back. My Mum would be sitting next to me in the passenger seat and she’s speaking to me, and then I would have the tendency to turn my head and look at her to understand what she’s saying, taking my eyes off the road. This was extremely dangerous because you take your eyes off the road. Driving in Sri Lanka with the chaotic traffic, with cars and motorbikes, people coming from all over the place, I struggle with the focus to ensure my eyes are on the road. 

Now I have noticed with the second implant, and we have been driving around in Sydney for the last couple of weeks, that I am able to stay with my eyes focused on the road and am still able to participate in a conversation without looking, without turning my head. So I see this as a massive improvement.

Another funny example since I have been wearing the second processor is that I have made a conscious effort to remove the stronger right ear, especially when I am at home and in the mornings and having a chat with Mum. This helps with the listening practice. 

So one day at one time when I was ready to take a shower, and by force of habit I will take off my sound processors. So when I stepped into the bathroom and switched the water tap on, suddenly I could hear the water trickling down and I thought to myself, ‘That’s really strange. Why am I still hearing the water?’ Then I stepped onto the shower cubicle and the sounds were louder and sharper and I thought to myself, ‘Something is not right.’ That’s when I realised, ‘Oh my God, I completely forgot to take off my sound processor.’. 

It’s a wonderful feeling because I had thought that the right ear alone was enough, but apparently it wasn’t. Of course at that time I didn’t know any better. I now think of the right and the left ear as two buddy systems. The right needs the left to help to know where the sounds are coming from, and the left needs the right to help with speech and communication.

Now when I take the left ear off and focus on the right ear alone, still it feels like there is a massive vacuum, like something is missing. The sounds are not quite complete. So now I am fully equipped with two Nucleus 7 sound processors on both ears, it feels like it’s almost complete. It’s getting there; it’s almost complete.

I have had excellent support from SCIC. A special thanks to my audiologist Nick and to my pathologist Sharon, who is here, for helping me out and to the support staff as well. Sharon, I will continue with my listening activities when I get back home. We have been here in Sydney for four months and we are heading back to Sri Lanka on Tuesday. We hope to be back in Sydney soon. If anyone wishes to reach out, my details are there on the screen with my email address, phone number or you can contact me on Facebook or Linked-In. Thank you so much for your time and attention. I wish you all the very best and good luck.

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