Nov 2018 ABC News
Dr Rice with his cochlear implant. He has spent his career helping others to hear
John Rice pioneered cochlear implant surgery in South Australia as an ear, nose and throat surgeon in the 1990s. This week, he had his own cochlear device turned on. Light comes into his eyes and surprise on his face as he describes the new experience. "I'm hearing much more and better with this than I ever thought I would — it's wonderful, absolutely," he said. As the implant is first turned on, Dr Rice mentions that the noise coming through is very loud, like a mouse squeaking in his ear. His audiologist takes him through the hearing test and explains to him and his wife, Jenny, that at first, he is unlikely to hear much more than noise. It might take a while for the high frequency sounds to settle down and for voices to sound familiar again. Mrs Rice watches the smile on her husband's face and then softly explains that before the surgery, her husband had started to seem isolated and withdrawn. It had impacted his relationships and their communication. "I didn't know how it would work and it's worked really well. It's very exciting and I'm really thrilled about the whole thing, it's come full circle, and it's lovely," she said.
Dr Rice became interested in helping deaf children hear for the first time more than 50 years ago when he worked at a women and children's hospital in London. After moving to South Australia, the ear, nose and throat surgeon came across the case of a six-year-old child who had deaf parents and lived in an entirely silent household. The boy had full hearing but never learnt to speak.
"If a child hasn't heard by the age of six, they are unlikely to develop speech and language," Dr Rice said. "Practically all the patients I operated on were children, and of course most of them had never heard anything at all ever in their lives."
One of the first paediatric operations was performed by Rob Webb on a South Australian child in Melbourne. Dr Rice remembers assisting in the surgery and said it was very difficult to tell how well the implant was working because the patient could not tell them. "The parents were incredibly courageous in that when we started we really didn't know too much about this thing — there was this device, we could implant it, we didn't know how long it would last, we didn't know what the complications were," he said. Dr Rice said he often heard from the children he helped and remembers years later when a boy told him "it was marvellous growing up because he could switch Mum off when she got cross with him".
A letter from a patient thanks Dr Rice for installing her cochlear implant
As technology advanced, and the procedure became more common, Dr Rice went on to teach others how to perform the surgery. Michael Schultz is one student that he fondly calls his protege.
Dr Schultz is now an ear, nose and throat surgeon at The Memorial Hospital in Adelaide and said he was slightly nervous when he found out he had to perform the procedure on the man who had taught it to him years ago. "I must admit when I saw his name on my patient list one day I thought, 'Is that John?'" Dr Schultz said. "And sure enough it was, so it was a bit of an odd feeling, particularly that he was coming to see me about his hearing loss.” What used to be a complex four-hour operation in the 1990s is now considered a routine operation that is done in about 90 minutes, but it is still having a profound impact on people's lives.
It has only been an hour, but Dr Rice exceeds the audiologist's expectations and is hearing every sound through his new bionic ear. "If you had asked me in 1975, 'Will the bionic ear ever be a reality?' I would have said, and I did say, 'Yes, but not in my professional lifetime'," he said.