Sue WaltersI lost my hearing from meningococcal meningitis in 1984. I remember waking up, thinking “where is all my furniture and why is there a nurse in my room...where am I”. I was pretty blitzed out after 4 days of being unconscious. I nearly died from the septicaemia. I lost the use of my legs for a while and lost my balance completely.

I had to learn to walk again in a whole new way. I lost the use of one eye for a while too and everything looked blurry, which didn’t help with the walking. But one of the hardest things was hearing this roaring noise in my head, tinnitus, and nothing else, not even my own voice. I guess I was shouting at everyone. WOW is this me I am talking about? It’s hard to believe that my “former” busy, social, ordinary life just came to a standstill like that.

Yet these things happen. I’ve learned so much since then. Things don’t always go “right” in your life, but of course this is where the greatest lessons are. Turning points, little moments in your life where you see things in a whole new way.

It took me some months to recover from all the effects of meningitis. Lots of hospital appointments to monitor all my health issues. Somewhere along the way I was sent to an appointment with Professor Bill Gibson who was starting a cochlear implant program at RPA Hospital. I wasn’t that interested at first because I thought my hearing would come back. Several months later, my thoughts were more like “well, I’ve got nothing to lose by trying”.

So there I was in August 1984 going into theatre for what was the first Cochlear Implant operation in Sydney. It was still considered an experimental device and the outcomes were not certain. When I was “switched on” about 3 weeks later, the sound was not really what I expected, but it certainly helped me right from the start. There was something else to listen to besides the head noise and when I watched people talking, there was this recognition of something like my former hearing. The sound was fairly crude back then, compared with today and the improvements in technology have enabled a much more natural, clearer sound and smaller devices. The fact that I could hear again and even manage to use the phone to some degree within a few months was amazing. People also told me that my voice had gone back to what it was previously, whereas it had gone very monotone during the time I was totally deaf.

I had an implant in my second ear in 2005 and it was quite different to the first one, in that it sounded so much better right from the switch-on. So now I hear with 2 ears again and my hearing seems to be getting BETTER as I get older, rather than worse! Of course this still depends on whether I am paying attention. I still have to actively listen and interpret, especially in noisy or social activities, but I think I hear very well and effectively use the phone both at work and elsewhere.

I will be forever grateful to Professor Gibson, to Professor Graeme Clarke’s team in Melbourne and the innovators at Cochlear Ltd (formerly Nucleus) for their perseverance in making this a reality. The growth of the Cochlear Implant program across Australia has involved the commitment of many dedicated professionals and profoundly deaf people from birth to their 90’s and really changed their lives.

I started CICADA volunteer support group back in 1984 with Cathy Simon, who was also implanted on the same day as me as part of the experimental CI program at RPA. It was Cathy’s idea to start a club and I was happy to be a part of this because I wanted to “share the joy” with everyone. After the success of our implants there was a lot of interest from both deaf people and professionals in the field and we wanted to be able to share our experiences of how it helped in our daily lives. Social situations with background noise are still a challenge for me, but after almost 33 years with a cochlear implant, I still think it is a miracle.

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