Cochlear implants for children: A father’s story

Posted on 2 July 2016

Dr Anthony Allwood, an anaesthesiologist at Mediclinic Vergelegen, shares the experience of having two of his daughters undergo a cochlear implant – and the difference it’s made in their lives.

‘We have three daughters, two of whom were born deaf. Both have had cochlear implants, in which an electronic medical device is placed in the inner ear to provide sound to the brain. Kate, our oldest, had two operations eight years ago – the first when she was six months old, and the second at 11 months. Faye, our youngest daughter, had her operation this year at the age of eight months, and both sides were done at the same time.

‘My wife and I knew exactly what to expect – I’m an anaesthesiologist at Mediclinic Vergelegen and had been in theatre with Dr Derrick Wagenfeld, an ENT surgeon [otorhinolaryngology], during cochlear implant surgery before we even knew we’d go down that road with our own children. Although I knew what was involved, obviously it’s different when it’s your own child. It was stressful to see them going under anaesthetic, and it’s required more than once – first for the pre-op MRI scans, and then again for the procedure itself.

‘The surgical procedure takes anywhere between an hour and a half and three hours per side, under general anaesthetic. It’s a fairly small procedure, although it requires a huge amount of skill. The patient usually just stays in hospital overnight – and nowadays some are even discharged on the same day. So although it’s a technically intricate procedure, it can be a day case.

‘Kate’s operation in 2008 was a lot more stressful for us than Faye’s this year. With Kate there was a degree of the unknown for us. But it’s a safe procedure, and she was in good hands. We had every confidence in Dr Wagenfeld, and we knew what the outcome would be.’

A dramatic change
‘The most dramatic moment was when they heard sound for the first time. Before the operation they could hear nothing, so they had no frame of reference for sound at all. Four weeks after the op, when the bone had healed, the implants were switched on for the first time and they experienced a brand new sense. It was done at the hospital in a quiet, controlled environment, and at first they didn’t know what was going on! That was an amazing moment for us as parents. It’s truly remarkable to see your child hearing for the first time.

‘The difference before and after a cochlear implants is also dramatic. Without the implants, they would remain deaf for life. So their method of communication would have been sign language, they would have needed special schooling… But what you’re doing with a cochlear implant, essentially, is you’re curing deafness.

‘Before the implants and without the implants, your child becomes silent. After a few months they don’t make noises any more. They stop babbling, stop cooing… they just sit and watch. But then when you get the implants and you switch them on, suddenly your child comes alive again! Faye instantly started making noises, hearing her own voice and responding. It was truly amazing. The change is enormous, and you see it within days.

‘With the implants, our children have normal lives. Kate played catch-up for the first two years after her implant, but from the age of two she was in a normal school with hearing friends. She’s never used sign language and she’s never had speech therapy. She speaks normally. You’d never know she had a hearing problem just by listening to her. She swims. She plays sport. She has perfect elocution. She sings in tune. She laughs. She’s a normal child. It’s just that she wears processors on her head that connect to the implants inside her head.

‘The blessing of having access to cochlear implants is that you can give your child a normal life. They’re exactly like every other child.’

Published in Patient Stories

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