Olivia Andersen's Cochlear Implant StoryOlivia Andersen is the founder of Hear For You, an award-winning mentoring program for deaf adolescents and the proud mum of three beautiful hearing children. She shares why she decided to have a cochlear implant at 30.

It’s been three years and five months since I received my cochlear implant. I was 30 years old and my first child was just seven months. I remember being a bundle of nerves. Will the surgery be successful? Will it live up to my expectations and dreams? What will my beautiful baby sound like? Today I know without a doubt that my decision to have the implant so I could communicate completely with my children was the right one.

My deafness

I was eight months old when during a routine Mothercraft test my unsuspecting parents were told I was profoundly deaf and would never speak or go to a mainstream school. Our family has no history of deafness and I was a happy babbling baby so it came as a huge shock to Mum and Dad. They resolved, however, to do everything possible to help me communicate through speech.

Hearing aids were immediately fitted, enabling me to discern loud noises though not spoken words. I had to be taught how to decipher the limited range of distorted sounds, as well as try to register sounds I couldn’t hear by identifying them through minuscule differences in lip movement. Then I had to convert these interpretations into intelligible speech by making pronunciations often beyond my own range of hearing. It was not easy and involved countless hours of extra tuition after school, all the more difficult as I would feel burned out after coping in a hearing world during the day.

The decision to have a cochlear implant

When I became pregnant with our first child, I had a major rethink. By then I had grown to live comfortably with my deafness. I had integrated happily into a mainstream school and graduated from university. I had married a lovely man and had a great group of friends. In many ways, I felt my hearing loss had made me self-reliant and given me the ‘steel’ to live a happy life.

I had started Hear For You, a mentoring program for deaf adolescents. My husband Thomas loved me for the person I was and I felt I had turned my deafness into a virtue. However, when our first child Camilla was born I thought hard and decided I would enjoy being a mum all the more if I could communicate better with my children – and them with me. Olivia Andersen and family

The implant took some adjusting to. The avalanche of new sounds felt intensely confusing. My brain had to translate the sensations and then tell me that that’s the sound of Milla crying; that’s the sound of Thomas talking to me; happen automatically. At that stage, I had
no way of knowing if what I was hearing was what everyone else heard. It was like learning not just a new language, but landing on a new planet where sound itself is utterly different and you have to find your way around. I was, and still am, on a sound safari.

Hearing Rehabilitation

It has been a gradual process. As part of the rehabilitation Thomas and I spent ten minutes every day doing listening practice. I would have to discern which of two similar sounding words he was saying without looking at his lips.

The hard work has paid off with my listening, but I notice my lip-reading skills have diminished slightly as I become more dependent on my cochlear implant. I have always felt lip-reading is my own “secret weapon” – it’s amazing what people whisper to each other in a crowded bar 20 metres away! Needless to say, this is a small price to pay. I’m still waiting on the call up from ASIO!

We now have three beautiful children – Camilla 3, Noah 2 and Evie who is just 8 months old. Life is full-on and I often wonder how I would be coping if I didn’t have my cochlear implant. I can differentiate Milla and Noah’s voices as they play in another room. I can hear Evie crying upstairs when she wakes and I am downstairs at the opposite end of the house – even with the television on. Before my surgery, I used to carry the baby monitor everywhere with me – I was so afraid of not hearing Milla cry.

Olivia’s sound journey

Noisy environments are still difficult though. One day at the playground I was pushing Milla and Noah on swings from behind, blissfully unaware of their calls of “Enough Mumma! Enough Mumma! I want to get off!”. A concerned bystander eventually told me my children wanted to get off the swings – one of my most embarrassing moments to say the least.

I love playing children’s songs in the car and singing along with the kids. It used to be impossible for me to sing in tune. Now my cochlear implant seems to “enjoy” Jay Laga’aia’s ‘Ten in the Bed’ CD. It appreciates his deep, rich voice. There must be something about his Maori accent. I am also enjoying clapping songs including Miss Mary Mack with my children at home and at playgroup. It is so different from when I felt isolated from this activity as a little girl in the school playground. In some ways, I am going through childhood stages again and it is a wonderful thing to be sharing with my children.

We recently welcomed ‘Cochlear Koala’ into our home – a cuddly stuffed koala wearing a toy speech processor attached to a tiny magnet tucked inside his head – a gift from my cousin. The kids love his uniqueness, embrace his difference and include him in their imaginative play with their other stuffed animals.

Twelve months after switch-on, I had a 20-minute telephone conversation with my mum – with only two “repeat” requests. My hearing improves each day, but one of my biggest challenges is finding time to devote myself as much as I’d like to ongoing rehab. When my little ones are a bit older and I surface again, I plan to ‘bury my head’ in learning.

Before and now

My implant has helped me appreciate the nuances of how a person is feeling through their voice whether upset, happy, angry or speaking with sarcasm or irony. Previously I relied solely on body language so it is good to be able to hear as well as intuit things.

Before my cochlear implant, Thomas and I needed to have eye contact to communicate. He had to find me in the house if he wanted to say something to me. I, on the other hand, would be able to shout loudly at him from wherever I was to ‘instruct/request’ him to do something. An unfair advantage he thought!

Thomas is now able to talk to me from another room and no longer needs to get my attention with a high-pitched “cooee” call. Now he has stopped using this call I must say I miss it! This reminds me of a humorous card he gave me on the way home from switch-on. With my head filled with strange and alarming noises, Thomas handed me a card he claimed had been written to me by Milla: “From now on, you have to do everything that Dad says, as you have no excuse!”

Music is an adventure. Sometimes, before my implant, Thomas and I would go to a concert together. Just because you are deaf doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the atmospheric excitement at a concert. The music was loud enough so I could feel it and I liked to observe other people’s reactions. At a Billy Ocean concert during some of the slow tunes, Thomas could see I was getting bored. So he tapped out the beat on my hand. But when Billy belted out ‘Lover Boy’ (what a hit) the crowd started dancing and singing. It had a great effect on me. I now enjoy concerts all the more because I can follow the tune and feel the pounding beat. Now I’ve got to decide whether I love pop or classical. I think I’ll enjoy both.

Olivia’s future with a cochlear implant

Even after three and a bit years I still face the future with great excitement. Before the implant, I could only hear 4% of sentences. Six months after I was switched on it dramatically increased to 36% and at 24 months to 48%.

When I resume my rehab in earnest goodness knows what this can become. My earlier fear that being able to hear would affect my identity was groundless. I’m still the same person I’ve always been, but now because I’m able to communicate, life is even better.

I am grateful to my cochlear implant for giving me the confidence and control I now have as a mum. I am also grateful that it has opened up whole new horizons of fascination, subtlety and adventure for me.

Olivia Andersen’s journey originally appeared in HearingHQ magazine Apr 2014