The National Cochlear Implant programme has been in place since 1995 with around 200 people each year benefiting from surgery to enhance their level of hearing.
An RTÉ One documentary, Sound Barrier, looks at several people with hearing difficulties who made the decision to undergo surgery in the hope they would be able to tune into the world.
To the uninitiated, this all sounds very positive, but there have been questions raised about whether or not the procedure is always the right path to take.
Eddie Redmond, CEO of the Irish Deaf Society, says contrary to some reports, the organisation is not opposed to the surgery as such, but feels that patients should think long and hard before making the decision.
“The IDS are not against cochlear implants and believe everyone has the right to choose, but the concern is that people are not being given full access to information, especially in regards to Irish sign language, deaf culture and the deaf community,” he says. “It is essential that people are made aware of a full and balanced account of the different information and options available to them. It is also very important to note that cochlear implants are not a cure for deafness”.
But when Gemma Lawlor, 54, — who has had hearing difficulties from birth — awoke one morning to a silent world, she vowed to do anything to hear her name being called again.
“I had state-funded hearing aids until I got married in 1986 when my husband worked with me to try to find a better solution to my hearing loss,” recalls the Dublin woman who is married to Dennis and has two daughters, Lisa, 25, and Tara, 21.
“We borrowed money to get private hearing aids which were customised and worked much better.
“But one morning in 2012, I dropped my aid and when I put it on there was no sound. We thought that it was just a matter of getting it fixed but after several tests it discovered that I had lost my hearing — I was absolutely gutted and terrified as I could no longer hear my children or my husband — I had nothing but tinnitus which was like the warning beeper of a reversing truck. It was awful.”
The constant ringing in Gemma’s ears not only caused her an immense amount of distress but she also suffered from headaches, nausea, lack of balance and insomnia — so she decided to go down the route of implant surgery.
Suitability for cochlear implant surgery is decided by assessment. As a general guideline, to be considered for an implant you need to meet the following criteria:
Severe to profound sensori neural hearing loss in both ears
Receive only marginal benefit from hearing aids
Medically suitable for surgery
Strongly motivated and have a good support network from family, friends and professionals.
“I had always resisted the idea of having a cochlear implant because although I only had a little hearing, I still felt it was me,” explains Gemma. “But after it went altogether, I realised that I had to get it back — at any cost.
“I hate to think what would have become of me if I hadn’t been accepted for surgery as it was a life saver. I was so positive that it calmed down any fears I had about the operation itself and the possible risks of long-term damage to facial muscles.”
Last December, Gemma underwent a two-hour operation to insert the implants and the recovery process was slow and somewhat painful. “Although I felt nothing during my operation, the recovery was a bit tough,” she says. “I had a lot of pain around where they had operated — it was like going to sleep and someone sticking a piece of metal under my scalp and literally stapling it closed afterwards.
“Ten days later, I was scheduled for my switch on. I was told not to expect too much but I could hear the audiologist talking to me straight away and could hear my own voice. I was thrilled with the outcome and was so emotional with getting my hearing back and in particular my name, which had been silenced for 18 months — so every pain and painkiller I had to take was worth it.”
Tegan Kavanagh is 17 months old. Like most little girls, she is full of wonder about the world around her — but unlike other babies her age, she has only just begun to hear the sounds which others take for granted.
Neither of Tegan’s parents, Tina and Michael, have any family history of deafness, so their daughter’s diagnosis was a shock which took some time to come to terms with.
“The day after Tegan was born, she had a routine hearing test which she failed,” says Tina. “We were quite surprised but didn’t worry about it until she had another test a few days later and failed that also.
“When she was four weeks old, she was referred to hospital in Waterford where she was diagnosed as being profoundly deaf. That was really hard for us to take in and because we have no deafness in the family, it was an awful shock. We didn’t even know any deaf people so for a good while, we really felt on our own with it.” When Tegan was six months old she was referred to Beaumont Hospital in Dublin for cochlear implant surgery.
“When we heard about cochlear implants, we decided straight away that we would like Tegan to have this done,” says Tina, who lives in Carlow. “We knew there were risks but this was the only chance for her to have a normal hearing life, so this knowledge overrode any other concerns. We were told we would have to wait up to five hours for the surgery to be completed as she had to have an implant on each side, but it went really well and she was back in the ward after three hours.”
Instant sound would be unnerving for anyone who is used to silence, particularly a small child, so it was several weeks before Tegan’s implants were turned on — and even then, the sound was kept to a minimum.
“When we went back to Beaumont for switch on we were nervous that it might not have worked, but we were also excited,” admits Tina. “The audiologist could tell that Tegan was hearing sounds and we went away with the level down very low so she could get used to it. Her surgery was in March and we are noticing changes all the time — she has started to babble and her laugh has got much heartier so it is great to know that she has become more in tune with the world.”
The Kavanagh family will continue to visit Beaumont for monitoring and adjustment but Tegan’s parents are delighted that they took the decision to bring sound into her life. “Putting your child through an operation is hard, but we are so glad for Tegan that it is now behind her and she can get on with life like any other little girl,” says Tina. “Because she is so young, it’s not possible to get feedback, but all we know that thanks to her implants, her future is now very promising.”
COCHLEAR IMPLANTS EXPLAINED
A cochlear implant provides access to sound for people with severe to profound hearing loss.
The surgically-implanted device, when coupled to an external processor, can provide access to speech and everyday sounds to aid or improve hearing.
A detailed assessment is needed to find out whether someone is likely to benefit from a cochlear implant.
Since its foundation in 1995, The National Cochlear Implant Programme at Beaumont Hospital has been providing care for adults and children with severe to profound hearing loss.
Assessments for suitability are carried out across all age groups, ranging from a few months to 80 years and beyond.
The programme is publically funded and includes assessment, hearing aid fittings, surgical intervention and all post-operative follow-up and management.