Nov 2018 Devon Live

After helping heal patients despite being profoundly deaf, a Devon doctor can now hear again. For nearly 30 years professor Willie Hamilton was able to continue his career by lip-reading and relying on his wife or colleagues to help with phone calls. Now a new hearing world has opened up to the 60-year-old thanks to new cochlear implant. Prof Hamilton said: “I always explain my deafness when I met patients, but now for the first time in 29 years after not hearing a thing, I can hear. “It’s just the people who have to listen to me that now have to suffer.”

His hearing loss began after qualifying as a doctor in 1982, and with the help of hearing aids he was able to continue living a normal life. However a deep-seated infection in 2000 meant his hearing deteriorated further. Lip reading became Prof Hamilton’s way of communicating, together with FaceTime video calls and having colleagues who could take calls for him. In November 2017, he received his life-changing cochlear implant and he describes the first phone call he made without the need of a translator or visual aid to lip read as having felt ‘amazing’.

Prof Hamilton, who has been working on early cancer diagnosis for more than 20 years and is as a professor of primary care diagnostics at Exeter University – with a large body of work funded by Cancer Research UK - can also vividly recall the moment his hearing first returned. He said: “My wife and I were away for the weekend walking with the dogs on Dartmoor and due to meet up with friends, also doctors, as we do every year. “We had all arranged to meet at a bleak, but lovely spot on the moor. There was no sign of our friends Stafford and Rhona. However, a warbling sound started deep inside my skull. I instinctively picked up my phone and slid the bar to answer. That was a challenge because I didn’t know that was how you answered a phone. I gave it to my wife Ali to answer, as I’ve done for many years previously, but then at that moment I could hear Stafford talking and realised my phone had been blue-toothed to my implant and his voice was crystal clear in my ear”.

prof hamiltonProfessor Hamilton now enjoying the sounds of Dartmoor with his wife Ali

Professor Hamilton

Professor Hamilton with his cochlear implant

“A comedy phone call followed and it took quite a while to realise that my wife Ali was an unnecessary third party and didn’t need to translate for me. I was so thrilled that when I found him in a nearby village pub, I gave him a huge bear hug with tears in my eyes and got some really strange looks from all around. What I love most about my new found sense of hearing is bird song and being able to walk on Dartmoor and hear what is going on around me. It is something I will never get tired of.”

The former GP is behind a Cancer Research UK award called Catalyst which is looking at the study of tests for cancer in primary care. The collaboration also has a major educational theme aimed at fostering the next generation of researchers in the subject. It hosts several researchers and PhD students working in Exeter and further afield on a diverse range of clinical topics, all aimed to improve timely cancer diagnosis. Prof Hamilton said: “Much of my communication has been able to be conducted over email, but it’s a revelation now to just pick up the phone and have a conversation. There is no need to rely on lip reading or having someone extra in the room to pick up on conversations. Now I can hear, my work as a cancer researcher is as busy as ever. I am currently looking at how the transfer of testing from hospitals to GP surgeries will benefit patients when it is safe and wise to do so. This could relieve pressure on hospitals and allow testing to be carried out more quickly. It could also lead to more patients being tested nearer to their homes and this is an area which excites me greatly.”

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They are based in Western Australia and supported by Senses Australia.

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